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The head of a medical school in Barbados, wanted in India for allegedly bilking thousands of dollars from students, has been taken into police custody amidst investigations into operations at the university here.
Washington University of Barbados’ chief executive officer, Gopi Venkat Rao was taken into police custody last Friday, led away in handcuffs from the campus which is located at a re-purposed hotel, Casa Grande Hotel, in the eastern parish of St Philip.
Approximately, 200 students, mostly drawn from India, had gathered for nearly three hours as a high-level Government team – which included Minister of People Empowerment and Elder Affairs Cynthia Forde, the team included Parliamentary Secretary for the Ministry of People Empowerment Neil Rowe, and officials from the ministries of labour, health, and education, and the Welfare Department – broke the news.
Media outlets India Times News Network and The Hindu newspaper reported on September 29 that more than 200 students were duped by an educational consultancy firm of which Venkat is the owner Six of Venkat’s staff members were arrested in India, and police launched a hunt for the director, his wife Nikita Venkat and an associate identified as Zameer, The Hindu reported.
The alleged fraudsters convinced clients that they had secured tie-ups with medical institutions in several countries. They allegedly promised them seats in medical colleges in the US and China. Police also identified four similar cases where Venkat allegedly duped several students and then shut shop to restart in a different province, according to the respected newspaper based in Chennai.
Prior to his arrest, Venkat was unreachable by staff and students. His executive secretary, Tricia Newton, disclosed that the staff had not been paid and persons felt like they had been “defrauded”. The approximate 40 workers had not been paid for more than three months and on-campus staff and students had no access to food.
“It is a dire situation, I watch people at work every day crying [and] begging,” Newton revealed. She also divulged that Indian staff were routinely replaced after their work permits expired.
“It is basically a cycle where [management] pay for their [workers’] ticket, gave them work permits; their work permits expire; they did not renew them; they did not pay the persons for months. People were just around here begging; [management] would get rid of those and bring in another set.”
Students gathered at the campus were confused, frustrated and concerned about what the day’s events meant for their future. They did not have access to food, electricity or water, since utilities had been cut off after the administration failed to pay the bill for five months.
Sowjanya Racharla, 23, pleaded for someone to send her home after she spent the last year being led by false promises. She revealed that her family sold their property and took out a loan to finance her dream to become a doctor.
“I came against my dad. My dad said, ‘Baby you already have a degree why do you want to go back there?’ and I said, ‘Dad I want to become a doctor and this university is saying they can send me to the United States where I can get placed better than India’,” Racharla explained, saying that she had cried until she could cry no more.
“I was the hope for my parents and he [Gopi Venkat Rao] was my hope and now he is gone.”
Despite suggestions from Ministry officials that students could transfer to other universities on the island, Racharla expressed a loss of hope and fear that the circumstances could recur.
“Yes, they will transfer but again my father has to send me dollars to eat and stay here; Barbados is not cheap!”
“I am not rich, I am not even middle class, I am under poverty. My parents sold my property, took loans and sent me around US$30,000 to Barbados,” Racharla shared.
Saddam Husen, 25, has been studying at the institution since its opening in 2016. He was disheartened that what looked to be a promising future all came to naught for not only him but for his family.
“What about our future? What about our money. What has Government decided? We are away from our family . . . . There is nobody to protect us . . . . We don’t have any support over here,” he said, crestfallen.
A consultant for the Washington University of Barbados, Subash Agarwal, questioned the procedures the unaccredited university went through to be registered in Barbados. Agarwal was speaking as a parent who invested US$32,000 in his daughter’s education. He was recruited by Venkat’s company in India and was assured that the institution met all the necessary health requirements by a video which was presented to the staff before their arrival in Barbados.
The video featured then Prime Minister Freundel Stuart and Minister of Health John Boyce guaranteeing that the institution met the necessarily stipulations, said Agarwal.
He claimed a month after the general elections, former Minister of Education Ronald Jones visited the campus and assured the staff and students that they would soon be accredited by the Barbados Accreditation Council.
“They provided a letter to all the consulting people, gave us videos of the health minister, Prime Minister, videos in their function at the university . . . . I thought all was well,” Agarwal explained, adding that those videos were also shown to potential students to encourage them to join the school. “They collect millions dollars of money, hundreds of students’ careers!”
During his consultancy, Agarwal recruited 11 students. Now he feels deceived and “cheated” as both parent and an employee of the university. He expressed hope that the Government of Barbados would be able to transfer the students to another university in the interim.
Minister Forde told journalists she was flabbergasted by the events that had unfolded. She said the ministries were working to ensure that the students and on-campus staff would have access to water, electricity and food, and that provisions would be made for students wishing to transfer to another university.
She emphasized that Government would “give a helping hand” to the students and staff and urged them not to have negative images of Barbados.
“We will do what we can as a Government and as a people to give them the measure of comfort that we believe that they deserve,” she said.