FOR the staid, protocol-minded Swiss, it has been a catastrophe. Enlightened citizens of Lausanne and Alsace believed for almost 30 years that they were funding destitute children in Calcutta when they set up the Indian edition of the Terres Des Hommes (TDH) in 1968. Till the bubble burst and it was found that the hard-earned Swiss money had in fact been bankrolling a child-abuse racket for years. The chief suspect: Milton Edward Maccann, 66, British citizen of Anglo-Burmese descent, head of the city branch of TDH.
Local TDH executives apparently took advantage of the distance from their headquarters and the consequent communication gap to fulfil a parallel agenda that had little, if at all, to do with relief work of any kind. Says Gerd Strehle, in charge of TDH's India operations: "At first, there were disturbing rumours that there was siphoning of funds, fraudulent activities like inflating the number of children under relief, and finally child abuse.
Matters came to a head some months ago when we found much that was wrong. Maccann was asked to quit and he has stepped down." Insiders say Strehle sent his first warnings to the Swiss authorities in the early '90s; Maccann's tenure began from about 1976. Despite the setback, says Strehle, TDH will continue its India operations. "We now have a new, better team; we always want to provide relief to poor children.
TDH is active in 38 other countries." Interestingly, there are no direct accusations of child abuse against Maccann. In a communication to Calcutta lawyer Shakya Sen, the TDH foundation has decided to launch penal action against him on three grounds. "Against Mr Milton Maccann we have three categories of charges and complaints: Category 1—mismanagement of programmes financed by our foundation; Category 2—misuse of funds allocated by our foundation; Category 3—sexual abuse of minors under the authority of Mr Maccann. On this charge we have several witnesses including, for the time being, one direct victim," the communication reads.
Maccann, a leading socialite of Calcutta, was on intimate terms with the Tatas, the Birlas and had connections in government circles in the UK, Germany, Australia and Ireland. At an acrimonious meeting in Calcutta with his principals—Strehle, Mike Hoffman, TDH's director of programmes, and Christian Wenger, president of the Indian committee of TDH—he defended himself strongly. The confidential minutes of the meeting quote Maccann as saying: "Because I'm a bachelor and unable to adopt children legally, since my times with Jessop and Co, I've always fostered boys from homes and nobody ever, not from the highest levels, the donors, found anything wrong with this. This is the first time such things have come up. It's an assassination of my person."
MACCANN insists the boys he associated with stayed with their own families and called him father. He did share rooms with them while travelling, but never had any sexual relations. It was all a conspiracy, he insisted, when it was pointed out that concrete allegations had been made by boys of some programmes. Nevertheless, he agreed to quit, protesting that "every man should be given a chance of defence".
"It's the Swiss who are desperate to get me out. They don't trust Indians to run such operations. Financial corruption? Wenger himself complimented me on our account-keeping in Switzerland and India. Why were there no allegations for the last 20 years, if so much was wrong? As for child rehabilitation, I had arranged for the rehabilitation of over 2,000 children under the Bengal Service Society long before TDH came here," says an enraged Maccann.
There have been three hostile demonstrations against the present management, for which police protection had to be sought, apart from threats and intimidation. Says Strehle: "This business could indeed be awkward for us since the propriety-obsessed Swiss are mortally scared even by the whiff of a scandal. In case the lid is taken off this thing and there is negative publicity, who knows the donations might freeze."
The local TDH organisation, say sources, receives a financial assistance of around Rs 2 crore annually. It runs five schools, including a residential one for orphans and destitute children. Books, uniforms, clothes, food and medical care are all provided free. In addition, there are different village programmes for the 24 Parganas, codenamed Sahara, Premashis and Sishumala. TDH authorities have also been financing the Bengal Service Society (BSS), another welfare organisation which Maccann had set up and ran. "At present, it's difficult to ascertain how much money was siphoned off the Rs 20 crore of the total assistance received so far by the earlier group—it may be as high as 50 per cent over the years. We have just appointed Batliboi to prepare an accurate audit," says a TDH spokesperson.
The flow of foreign funds at both BSS and TDH India is considerable. A brief summary of recent assistance shows Rs 3,74,150 was sent from Swiss sources for purchasing vehicles for the Kalahandi project in February '94; another Rs 3,90,145 was sent in May '94 for meeting running expenses. A further Rs 87,780 was sent in October '94 for general purposes and in March '96, two instalments of Rs 5,09,625 and Rs 2,64,751 came in for the Kalahandi and Dakshindari hospitals respectively. In March '97, TDH Zurich sent Rs 1.2 million for Kalahandi; Ireland government sources sent Rs 5,43,800 in two instalments in '94 and '95, while Australia sent Rs 2,41,500 for Kalahandi. Between May '94 and March '96, Rs 8,21,395 was sent for Kalahandi and other projects by donors in the UK, Germany, Holland and Switzerland in five instalments.
"The money we put into relief here is not exactly peanuts," says Strehle. "We were shaken by complaints made to us by some members of our staff when we visited Cal-cuttaoccasionally. They told us the children paraded before us, the hospital beds occupied, were all a put-up job to show us all was well. The number of children provided for was nearer 500 than the 2,000-2,500 shown. The bills were patently false, as was often pointed out by our auditors. First-rate hospital facilities, where operations normally worth Rs 5,000 were being done for only Rs 250 or so, went abegging. The medical staff too was depressed, as it confirmed these allegations."
No one knows how much money from these funds was actually diverted, but on one particular point, the official auditor of the TDH for the last 13 years wrote to the Swiss authorities in April this year: "It's not possible to assess the exact percentage of diversion since no records are available for the actual number of beneficiaries of each pro-gramme in TDH(I) or BSS and no correct evaluation can be made. " Maccann's relatives are believed to have been the local suppliers of medicines, food and uniforms. Some of the bills submitted by tailors for uniforms supplied were also found dubious.
As for the charges of child abuse, it's fairly well known that Maccann has adopted a number of 'sons' during his stint at TDH. According to its staff, they were mostly from the serried ranks of the Calcutta poor. Yet, within a few years, most made minor fortunes for themselves. Islam, a supplier of food and other materials for some ongoing projects, also looks after the administration of the schools, although he has never been to one himself. The teachers at the schools are paid Rs 600 a month, while Islam has, during the last few years, come to own a big farmhouse, is building yet another house, has a car and a cordless phone. Moti, who has studied only up to class IV, owns a big house and a car, and is a supervisor at the Dakshindari hospital.
There is also Salim Jahangir who supplies provisions to the nutrition department of the BSS. It is alleged that only about 400 to 500 children take lunch, while no less than 2,000 are shown on paper. He owns cargo trucks and buses and, according to staff estimates, earns over Rs 35,000 a month.
Other adopted "sons" of Maccann, among them Ratan, Shakil and Mofizur Rahman, are equally successful. Some have been sent to Thailand and the UK. Such open sponsoring of favourites has upset other members of the staff. A driver with TDH wonders: "Perhaps some of the money reaching these sons—whatever bills they send get cleared automatically—is being diverted to their sponsor. Who knows? When we protested, Maccann threatened us with instant dismissal."
But for now, it's his own dismissal that Maccann is worried about.