To his faithful millions, he was God; to his disbelievers he was a fake; to his detractors he was a fraud; to the cynical he was a suspect.
Yet, to Karunanidhi, a professed atheist, he was a God-Saint. This sums up the public discourse on Sathya Sai Baba who passed away in April this year. But most, particularly outside his faithful lot, seem to have missed out the dimension of the great soul hidden beyond adulations and abuses — the unparalleled humanist. Here is that Baba not so well known.
Many men and women of high learning, achievements and wealth in India and outside were not just attracted to him. They revered him as the Divine Incarnate. It was his charisma that built a matchless organisation manned by hundreds of thousands of volunteers drawn from the highest echelons to the lowest strata of society. The number of volunteers registered to render from menial to clerical service exceeded six lakh. Baba’s entire work rests on this devoted cadre. A serving IAS officer would give up his job and join him as his clerk; a young IT professional would forgo his fortune, start cleaning the bhajan hall; a businessman heading a billion dollar firm would leave his business and look after one of Baba’s projects. A count of less than 1/6 of the total volunteers (91,753 to be precise) shows this telling break-up — doctors 3,173; engineers 9,760; lawyers/chartered accountants 3,521; professors and teachers 18,226; farmers and workers 41,295; industrialists 11,350; bankers 3,606; judges 71; legislators 167; journalists 261. Any more testimony needed for his charisma, organising skill and leadership?
His trusts have a corpus of several hundreds of crores of rupees. But never did he ask for donations; and he never hesitated to reject the wrong donors. Donors recount how Baba accepted their offerings after making them wait for months to test their sincerity to give. He kept all the money he received in trust for the poor and the needy in his times and in future. Even the undeposited cash and gold in his personal chamber — the Yajur Mandir — made their way to the trusts after him.
His work for education, poor and medical relief is unmatched by any charity in the world. Take two unbelievable illustrations first: Anantapur district in Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh was known for water scarcity and water salinity and fluorides. The government did nothing for 50 years to address this basic problem, even after Andhra Pradesh got a chief minister from the same district. Unable to bear the suffering of the poor, Baba decided to do in 18 months what the government could not in 50 years, namely to provide potable drinking water to the whole district of Anantapur — yes the whole district! He declared in November 1995, “Today it is ‘Raaltaseema’ (rocky region). It must be transformed into ‘Ratnala Seema’ (land that glitters like diamond)”. In just 18 months it was done! See what a massive work it was. Laying of some 2,000 kilometres — yes 2,000 — of water pipelines; building 43 sumps of 1 to 25 lakh litres capacity; constructing 18 balancing reservoirs of 3 to 10 lakh litres capacity — where? — on top of hillocks; erecting 270 overhead reservoirs of the capacity of 40,000 to 3 lakh litres; installing 1,500-plus concrete pre-cast cisterns of 2,500 litres capacity, each attached with four taps for the villagers to draw water. Result, drinking water became available to the poorest of the poor in 750 villages in the district.
The 9th Planning Commission document gratefully recorded: The Sathya Sai Charity “has set up an unparalleled initiative of implementing on their own, without any state’s budgetary support, a massive water supply project….to benefit 731 scarcity and fluoride/salinity affected villages and a few towns in Anantapur district in a time frame of 18 months.” Baba’s trusts repeated this work in fluoride-affected Medak and Mehboobnagar districts; provided water supply to some 4.5 lakh poor in 179 villages in Medak, and some 3.5 lakh poor in 141 villages in Mehboobnagar. In the three districts, more than 1,000 villages and 20 lakh people benefited.
Not just in Andhra. Seeing the poor people in Chennai suffer for want of water, Baba declared on January 19, 2002: “The rich can buy water sold by tanker services. And what will the poor do? I have decided to work towards bringing drinking water to Madras, no matter how difficult and how costly the task is”. His central trust took up the construction of 63 kilometres stretch of the 150 km canal in the Telugu Ganga scheme that had been left incomplete. The result was: 3 lakh hectares of agricultural land got irrigation in Nellore and Chittoor districts and the city of Chennai, Krishna water. These projects cost over Rs 500 crore.
The speciality hospitals in Puttaparthi and Bengaluru have, just to mention a few activities, treated over a million outpatients; performed over 7 lakh cardiac and neuro diagnostic tests, over 35,000 cardiac and neuro surgeries, as many cath procedures, over 40,000 eye surgeries; a million lab and blood tests. Yet the most critical department in any hospital, the billing department, is absent in both hospitals. The entire service is free. If these services had been charged it would have meant a bill of over couple of thousand crores. Baba’s trusts also run world class, but totally free, educational institutions, cultural centres and music colleges.
But after Baba passed away, what is the public discourse about? Not about the ongoing work for relief of poverty, suffering and education. Not about the lakhs of volunteers Baba has enlisted for work. But about what filth some relatives of Baba, whom he had kept away, had said against those who Baba had trusted to carry on his work; and about some Rs 35 lakh, meant for constructing the Samadhi of Baba, which the police had seized which became sensational news. Recall Katherine Mayo, gutter inspector, as Mahatma Gandhi called her?
S Gurumurthy is a well-known commentator on political and economic issues.
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