Is he a sex racket organiser or a philanthropist? Is he the man who single-handedly transformed the economy of the sleepy village of Maylavaram, near Vijayawada in Krishna district, or a ruthless bodyshopper for one of the oldest professions in the world?
These are the questions being asked about 64-year-old Lakireddy Bali Reddy, a successful US-based realtor and restaurant owner with an estimated worth of $50 million. Reddy was arrested last fortnight in Oakland, California, on charges of illegally bringing three girls from India for prostitution, involvement in a larger interstate smuggling operation, illegal immigration visas, and harassing tenants. Charges inconsistent with his deity status back in his hometown.
The can of worms opened when two girls from Andhra, Sitha Vemireddy, 17, and her 15-year-old sister, were found unconscious in an apartment owned by Reddy Realty on November 24. Sitha was pronounced dead at the local hospital. The cause ascertained was the toxic gas from a blocked wall heater vent. Her sister recovered and was released, though her identity was kept secret because of her age. But soon after Sithas death, the police received a series of anonymous letters alerting them to Reddys alleged misdemeanours.
Sitha and her sister, it was alleged, had been sold by her parents to Bali Reddy. And one Venkateswara Vemi Reddy and his sister Lakshmi Gari Reddy posed as the girls parents on Bali Reddys instance to escort them to the US. Bali Reddy was also accused of being sexually involved with Sitha and her sister. According to an affidavit filed in an Oakland federal court, a 20-year-old woman living at the apartment told federal agents that her father sold her to Reddy when she was 14. She was working at Reddys property in India for five years till he brought her to Berkeley last year.
Reddys attorney, Ted Cassman, however, claims "the charges are completely untrue, inflammatory and salacious". But while conceding the accidental nature of Sithas death, Berkeley Police Capt Bobby Miller says the police will continue investigating Reddy, owner of the property. Meanwhile Reddy was released last week on a staggering $10 million bail, posted by his brother Hanimi Reddy.
Reddys reputation in the area is mixed. He started work at a chemical firm in Richmond after earning a masters degree in chemical engineering from ucla in 1961, but quit engineering in 1974 when his four siblings came to the US. They opened the Pasand Madras Cuisine restaurant, initially at another location, before moving to Berkeley. He started his realty business at the same time, and now controls more than 1,000 rental units in Berkeley, besides others in the East Bay. He collects more than $1 million in rent from tenants each month. "He has a cavalier attitude about accuracy," says Marjorie Gelb, director of Berkeleys rent stabilisation programme. Another rent board official says the Reddys make more than five times as many errors on official forms as any other landlord in the city. Begging to differ, Amky Reddy, a former employee and not a relative, says: "He has been like a father figure to the community."
A view people back home in Maylavaram willingly endorse. For them, hes the educationist whos funded some of the local schools and helped set up a college. Hes also been responsible for nearly 200 people migrating to the US in the last three decades. Says Yerramala Nagi Reddy, who sent his son Satyanarayana Reddy to the US through Bali Reddy: "In one way or another, weve all benefited from him. Not just one boy or girl, entire families. " In fact, when the Outlook team reached Maylavaram, it was to the sound of crackers which the village lads had burst on hearing Bali Reddy had been released on bail. "We were shocked to hear about Bali Reddys arrest," said Nagi Reddy. "Were happy hes got bail and know hell win the case as hes a good man. Like God, he is a provider for us."
According to the Maylavaram residents, Sitha and her father Vemi Reddy couldnt have been from their district, but from Lakshmipuram in Khammam district. "To our knowledge they shouldve gone as family," says Nagi Reddy. Bali Reddys brother, Venkateswar Reddy, questions the premises on which the charges against his brother are based. Discounting the theory of abject poverty in the area, he says: "There are poor people here. But the poverty is not appalling enough to force parents to sell their offspring." As for the contention that Bali Reddy forces people to be slaves, he says: "Most people who go from here start work in restaurants and real estate companies owned by Bali Reddy, but soon move out to do something on their own."
Avillage senior touts another theory to prove Bali Reddys innocence. "Bali Reddy has taken people only from our area. If hed been ruthless or wicked, he couldnt have come back here. We havent become so loveless as to forego the welfare of our kith and kin for money."
Following his arrest in the US, the state government had asked the cb-cid to investigate the matter. So far theyve only had positive reports about him. Nor has the police station at Maylavaram received any complaint against him. And not because of Bali Reddys clout. "Even in the worst form of coercion, theres always someone who comes forward to defend their kins rights. In this case, no ones come forward to file any complaint," say the police.
The sex angle does baffle the police though. "Given the legal structure of the US, its not easy to trump up charges. Its also not fair to assume that Reddy was involved in a sex trade when we do not have any evidence to prove it," they say. One issue that is unresolved is the origin of the dead girl Sitha. Was she truly Vemi Reddys daughter as the documents show? Or was she the daughter of some poor farmer who sold her to Bali Reddy?
Meanwhile, the controversys acquired political overtones, with state Congress committee president Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy defending Bali Reddy. "He has helped hundreds of people in Krishna district and the media is carrying a vilification campaign against a technically qualified person without any hard evidence," says he. For, Bali Reddy stands condemned even before the real trials begun, largely for the focus his case has brought on one of Silicon Valleys most distressing issues: temporary work visas and their abuse.