Authorities in India’s Rayagada extract money in the name of the poor: Narges Ashtari
Philanthropist Narges Kalbasi Ashtari, whose story has made headlines internationally and nationally these days, tells the Mehr news agency how the authorities in the Rayagada District benefit from the poverty that the local NGOs portray to the outside world.
The Rayagada District is in the South of Odisha state which in turn is in Eastern India.
“The authorities in Rayagada District benefit from the poverty. They extract money through foreign funds in the name of the poor with the help of these organizations. Everyone is well connected and work together to profit from this,” Narges explains.
At age of 21 Narges sets out on a journey to India to open an orphanage. However, today she is faced with an uncertain future including a year in jail and $4,300 in fines.
The following is her full interview with Mehr published on Sunday.
Q. Narges, some people may wonder why you decided to go to India to open an orphanage. Why didn’t you set up one in Iran, your motherland?
That’s a very good question and it is one I get asked about a lot. To be honest, I did a lot of research prior to choosing a country to start my work in. I read a lot about the orphan, abandoned and disabled children of Iran and found many organizations and government run programs that help care for such children.
Generally speaking, Iranian people are much kinder to children in need compared to some states in India where I read horror stories on mistreatment and abuse of these children. The way children are treated in the developing world cannot be compared to Africa and some states of India.
The state of Odisha has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world that was just one of many reasons I wanted to go there first. I will, of course, work for the children of my homeland too, and I will love and take care of any child who is in need. We should love all children equally, no matter where they are born. A child in need is a human indeed, we should focus on ending poverty globally, and that is what I want to be part of.
Q. You had mentioned ASSIST, a local NGO in India, took one of your children’s homes from you back in 2013. Why?
Actually I have built two children’s homes in Rayagada district where they have taken one away from me and are currently trying to take the second one as we speak. At that time I was not a local in that area and I needed a piece of land to be donated to my foundation. This NGO, ASSIST, donated two pieces of land to Prishan Foundation but once the homes were complete, their behavior towards me changed, and I later found out that the land documents that their group of lawyers had given me were actually forged. The land was still in their name.
Once I found out that they were fake, I approached the local police and filed a complaint. The key member of ASSIST, a husband and wife, were sent to jail for 3 months because of that but still to this day they occupy my first home and the police are not investigating this matter. In their minds, ASSIST thought that once I built the homes, they could somehow get rid of me and then sell them to make money... both of these properties are very expensive and both of them together come to a total of around 80 to 88 thousand dollars.
So as you can imagine in a place so poor as Rayagada district, this amount of money is huge and these people would go to any length for money, even if it means killing someone. They harassed me, they harassed the children, they threatened me, and now, they have instigated this current case against me. They don't want me to talk about any of this and it is not just them, there are many other regional NGOs that are scamming people on a daily basis. The entire district and the NGOs here just wanted to silence me, and now that I have been sentenced, they seem to be getting what they wanted. It is absolutely an injustice to me.
Q. Could you please walk us through the day when you had arranged an excursion for your blind children and orphan boys two years ago? Fill us in on the details please.
On November 3, 2014, I took my visually impaired children and my orphan boys to a picnic in Rayagada, a tourist destination where a lot of people go every day for picnics. During this picnic two of my staff members, husband and wife, had also brought with them their own two children and it was during this picnic that they alleged that their older son disappeared.
Obviously we all tried to search for him, yet we couldn’t find him. So the parents went to the police station and I returned home with my own children. At the police station, they gave a statement to the police officer that their son was missing and they requested the police to search for him. And that was it.
It was only 33 days after, on December 6, 2014, that they were approached by ASSIST and were told to try to get money from me and that if I didn't pay, they would help them file a case against me. They approached me many times with these threats, but I never paid a single penny to anyone.
So they went to the police station and changed their story. They said that I had murdered their son. They were alleging that I had taken their son to a river, thrown him in and watched him drown. Later on, they changed their story again and accused me of manslaughter, because they said I had chosen an unsafe picnic area, blaming me for the death of their son. Their story has constantly changed!
Manslaughter due to negligence makes absolutely no sense, because firstly, the boy was not part of my foundation, secondly there’s been no body found and finally, the parents were present at this picnic! They should have been taking care of him, not anyone else. I told the police from the very beginning that they were trying to extort money from me but instead of helping me, they were asking me for bribes too! So from the beginning it’s been absolutely ridiculous and corrupt.
Q. Do you believe police did enough investigation to find the missing boy whose disappearance has raised many doubts to this day as his body has yet to be found?
Absolutely not. When the child was pronounced missing I had called the police to come and investigate. Two officers showed up an hour and a half later and they did not do a search at all. From that day onwards there has been no proper investigation whatsoever. I have not even been questioned; nobody has ever asked me what happened. From the very beginning the motive was money and still to this day, it remains the same.
Q. Just like you, your Indian assistant, Raju Gupta, also was charged of negligence on his part too for the incident, yet he walked away from any charges. Why?
It’s very clear! That’s just another clear indication that this was just simply a revenge attack on me, an attempt to extort money from me. My colleague Raju Gupta doesn’t have thousands of Rupees to pay in bribes, in their eyes, I do.
Q. You said you have not received a fair trial at the local court of Rayagada. Why do you think the judiciary system in that village has failed you?
They have absolutely failed me. It is a tiny town and everybody is somehow connected there. Everybody profits and benefits from poverty in Rayagada; so if you start to talk about the corruption, and if you start to expose the people who are meant to be helping the poor, they all suddenly turn on you, because you will affect their income so to speak.
Every single person working in this district profits from this; it is like a business for them. I was not able to speak properly in my court hearing and I was told to answer very short answers or yes/no. Even the judge in my court case cried when the mother of the child was talking! That’s how unprofessional and completely biased the trial was. I didn’t get a fair trial and I don’t expect to get a fair appeal in the next court either because it is in the same town with same people.
Q. Describe the attitude of the residents of Rayagada towards you these days.
I don’t blame the residents of Rayagada. They have kept their distance from me and again I don’t blame them for that. Obviously, when there is local government, when the police chief and the mayor and these powerful people turn against you, then I don’t expect the local people, the poor people, to go against the authority. I don’t blame them for being silent because obviously they’re scared.
If I am a foreigner and I am also scared of these people I can only imagine what the innocent, uneducated local people are feeling. Everyone is afraid to help me and the person who provided me with bail has been threatened and scared as well. It is impossible for anyone in this district to reach out and support me without also being framed and silenced.
Q. Do you fear for your life?
I Absolutely do. Many times people have tried to harm me. Many times they followed me on the highway trying to crash into my car. In one instance, in the middle of the night, there were police officers outside my home trying to frighten me. There are so many of these incidents and I have even reported this to police officers in different districts but they haven't intervened or tried to help me. There was an order from the Supreme Court of India which allowed me to get an exit permit and leave India and also to get police protection, but they still do not provide me with this! They are trying to do anything to harm me.
Q. What is your message for the judiciary system of Rayagada or the people of that village?
My message to the judiciary system is very different from the message I have for the people of Rayagada. I do not blame the people of Rayagada. The system in that area is flawed; those governing that area are corrupt. The people are not at fault. They cannot turn against the people governing this area.
My message to the judiciary system is that they have failed me and most likely many other people who weren't able to defend themselves. If they are able to do this to me then just imagine what they can do to people here who don't have a voice to speak up against it. I have a connection to the outside world but many people here don't; I feel really sorry for them. The state of Odisha needs to wake up and realize that nobody should be above the law and the law should be equal for everybody, this is not what is happening in one of their districts, Rayagada district.
Q. Many people across the world have raised concern over your health and safety and they want to know what they can do for your freedom.
Obviously, my physical and emotional wellbeing is not good at all. I think anybody in my shoes would feel the same. It’s definitely a scary situation. Even now that I am 100% protected in the Iranian consulate, I’m still scared because I don’t know what will happen in my appeal. I face a jail term for one year in the same town where I exposed their corruption!
My future and safety is all in the hands of the government of India. I don’t know why they are so quiet, why they are not intervening in this case. I demand a fair investigation. I’m not demanding an acquittal or anything else. I’m simply demanding a fair trial. I want them to open up my case and realize that I’ve been framed. I ask the people of Iran to please try to get in contact with Mrs. Sushma Swaraj who is the minister of external affairs [of India] and our Mr. Zarif to ask them to fight for me because I cannot fight alone anymore. I am afraid and need help. I want justice.