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How India's envoy in Berlin is using the embassy to raise money for wife's NGO

Sadiq Naqvi | Updated on: 7 October 2016, 23:08 IST

In a clear case of conflict of interest and potential misuse of public office, Gurjit Singh, the Indian ambassador in Germany, is hosting SpotlightBall Berlin, a fundraiser for an NGO in which his wife is a high-ranking functionary.

Neeru Singh is chairperson of the International Committee of Wadah Foundation. The committee is described on the NGO's website as its "marketing, public relations arm".

Along with Singh, the Indonesian ambassador to Germany Hartati Bawo has associated himself with the controversial event. Singh, coincidentally, served as the envoy to Indonesia from 2012 to 2015.

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The organisers of the invite-only ball have demanded that "each guest make a financial contribution of 400 dollars or 350 euros to help support the work of the Wadah Foundation".

The guests are required to turn up in black tie or their national dresses. "The evening opens with a welcome drink and an opportunity to mingle with like-minded members of the international community," the website states, adding that the chef Ravinder Bhogal from London and the catering team of Kofler & Kompanie will "conceptualise and present a real Indian Indonesian culinary experience. They will cook a fusion menu combining Indian, Indonesian and Berlin local cuisine".

The invites and the letter soliciting sponsorship have the names of Gurjit and Bawo. Even the email invitation has been sent from the official account of an Indian embassy staffer. "On behalf of the Spouse of the Ambassador of India to Germany Madam Neeru Singh, I am forwarding information about an upcoming event. We look forward for your participation. Please let us know so that we may reserve a seat for you," the email sent by Binita Chakroborty pleads.

Neeru's letter soliciting sponsorship for the event begins thus: "The Ambassadors of India and Indonesia in Germany will jointly hold a SpotlightBall Berlin, highlighting an Indian-Indonesian experience."

The invite bears the seal of the Indian embassy and lists the envoy as the host of the event to be held at Orangery, Charlottenburg Palace, in Berlin.

Apart from the fact that the impending event directly benefits an organisation headed by the spouse of the envoy, what has raised questions about the Indian embassy's association with Wadah is that the foundation has little to show by way of work in India.

As per the NGO's own website: "In July 2016, Wadah India was officially registered in New Delhi, India, where the WIC will also set up its hub and office." It further claims that Wadah has been supporting the work of other established NGOs and funding at least one of them, Udayan Care.

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Although an official in the foreign ministry had earlier told Catch that it was not "unusual" for an Indian mission abroad to associate with such an event, a compelling case of conflict of interest can be made in this particular instance.

Catch has sent queries about the event and the ambassador's association with it to both the embassy in Berlin and the foreign ministry, but is yet to receive a response.

This isn't the first time Gurjit Singh has associated the Indian mission with events his spouse was a part of. Neeru was on the advisory committee that shortlisted and implemented Corporate Social Responsibility projects for Tata Motors in Jakarta, Indonesia. Would it be surprising to know that many such projects were done in collaboration with the India embassy led by Gurjit.

Neeru also managed OIA India Eye Care Centre, a $3-million CSR project of the Overseas Infrastructure Alliance in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The OIA has a former diplomat, and former IAS and Reserve Bank officials on its board.

The OIA boasts of the expansion of Finchaa sugar factory as its major CSR achievement in Ethiopia. Coincidentally, this project got $132 million of the $640 million credit line extended to Ethiopia by New Delhi when Gurjit was the envoy there from 2005 to 2007. He has played an instrumental role in opening Indian credit lines to several African nations, especially Ethiopia.

Conflict of interest? "There was some controversy over the credit lines," a diplomat who worked with Gurjit in Indonesia told Catch. "But the Indian diplomatic community is very protective. Nothing came out of it."

Is that why the SpotlightBall Berlin hasn't raised much stink in the diplomatic establishment?

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The Ambassador's response

After the story was published by Catch, Gurjit Singh chose to respond and address the issue.

Singh says that his wife holds an honorary position as the Chairperson of the Wadah International Foundation and does not draw any salary or honorarium.

According to him, Neeru - a former IAS officer, who later served with the UN and was then associated with CSR projects in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and in Indonesia through Tata Motors - is only promoting the event and that there is monetary component to it.

The embassy, according to Ambassador Singh, is not attached to any financial side of the event - which, he says, is being handled by the foundation in entirety - and that they were asked by the Foundation to co-host the event. According to Singh, as an advocate of promoting civil society to civil society linkages, to enhance India's diplomatic outreach, he decided to become a part of the event. This is something we are doing to make "our heart feel good" and that there is "no conflict of interest", he says.

Singh says the foundation doesn't see the event as a fundraiser, but a bridge to forge partnerships

According to him, the embassy is only providing a cultural troupe. About the 'generous number of free invites', he says the invites sent using embassy channels were only sent to those whom the embassy wanted to reach out to and that these invitees have no been asked to pay the $400 fee the foundation is charging for this invite only event.

Singh claims to have not known initially that the invitation card asked for a $400 compulsory contribution and that it has been removed subsequently.

The Indian envoy also explained that the foundation does not see it as a fundraiser but is looking at the event as a "perception builder" and a bridge to forge partnerships. The foundation does not work in Germany.

The Ambassador points out that the Indian embassy plans to leverage the event to further its diplomatic outreach.

The Ambassador says that the association with Wadah Foundation goes back to his stint in Indonesia when the foundation was part of the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme, where it had sent illiterate women to Barefoot College in Tilonia as part of the Solar Mamas project.

Singh also says that through their association with the foundation, they are trying to convince them to do more projects in India.

First published: 7 October 2016, 23:08 IST