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  Monday Feb 07, 2000

Report from India: A tale of two worlds

Indian village in disbelief over charges in U.S. against native son

By Matthew Yi
OF THE EXAMINER STAFF
Photos from India: Lakireddy Bali Reddy's hometown, parents of the dead girl.

VELVADAM, India — Lakshmi Pratipati wished for what most Indian mothers would want for their daughters: a loving husband, a good home and a long, happy life.

But for a laborer who earns $1 a day carrying cement and water for construction crews, Pratipati knew her simple dream would be impossible in this rural village of 8,000 people in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

She and her husband, Germany, could not even afford dowries for their daughters, let alone a wedding party.

So, when they heard that an acquaintance was emigrating to the United States, the couple asked him to take their daughters, even while realizing they might never see them again.

It was a tragic decision.

On Nov. 24, the day before Thanksgiving, the two sisters, 15 and 17, suffered carbon monoxide poisoning and jump type: were found unconscious by their roommate in a downtown Berkeley apartment.

The older girl, identified at the time as Sitha, was pronounced dead at a hospital, while her sister survived.

Berkeley landlord Lakireddy Bali Reddy, an influential and well respected figure in the village, helped translate for authorities after Sitha's death. But Reddy soon become the focus of a police investigation after an anonymous letter alleged the girls had false names. Later admissions by the younger sister and others resulted in Reddy's being charged with smuggling illegal immigrants into the country for sexual purposes.

Reddy's son, Vijay Kumar Lakireddy, also has been charged with aiding his father by importing workers into the United States with fraudulent work visas.

Both father and son insist they are innocent.

The news of the girl's death has not only torn Pratipati's heart, but now she also faces pressure from neighbors to defend the man accused in the United States of sexually abusing her daughters.

In a place where India's poverty and traditional caste system still hang heavily over rural families like the Pratipatis, the girl's death and subsequent allegations against Reddy have caused the worlds of the highest and lowest members of Indian society to collide.

Real estate tycoon

Reddy, a Berkeley real estate tycoon, collects more than $1 million a month in rent money from about 1,100 apartment units he owns in the East Bay. A federal judge has frozen his $60 million real estate empire.

He was born in Velvadam 62 years ago, the eldest son of one of the village's most influential families, who belong to the region-wide Reddy caste, which has been traditionally made up of landowners. Reddy's family owns 35 acres of mango groves and rice fields, a substantial holding.

He left home three decades ago to pursue graduate studies in engineering at UC-Berkeley at a time when it was virtually unheard of for people here to send their children abroad for advanced degrees. Later, Reddy opened a restaurant in Berkeley , which gave him enough financial power to start buying apartment buildings in the Berkeley area.

In contrast, the Pratipatis are Dalits, once ranked so low they were not considered part of the Hindu caste system. Accounting for one-fifth of India's Hindu population — Hindus are 80 percent of the country's residents — the Dalits were called the "untouchables," referred to by Mahatma Gandhi, the father of Indian independence, as the "children of God."

No one else would imagine doing the kinds of menial labor that they performed, such as removing human waste. Although the Indian constitution outlaws caste-based discrimination, it still exists as a fact of life.

Nearly 53 years after independence from Britain, even Dalits have gained in India's enormous progress that has given rise to a thriving middle class and such symbols of the modern age as computers and nuclear weapons.

A Dalit — Kocheril Raman Narayanan — is now president of the country, and Dalits have their own political parties.

But while the vast social gaps in this South Asian nation of 1 billion have eroded over time, many Dalits — which means "broken people" — still suffer from poverty and "systematic human rights violations," reported the New York-based Human Rights Watch last April.

The Pratipatis' home, in the heart of what locals call "Dalit-wada," is a one-room concrete structure with a small veranda sheltered by wooden beams supporting a roof of bamboo sticks and straw.

Their prized possession is a milking buffalo, which they keep tied down in a small front yard.

Pratipati, who has four daughters and one son, said her children had completed or would be able to complete up to eighth or ninth grade.

Lakshmi Pratipati, sitting on the floor of a guest house for visiting government officials in Mylavaram, said although Reddy's generosity hadn't touched her family directly, she couldn't deny the good he'd done for her village. And she doesn't blame him for the death of her daughter. At the request of an Examiner reporter, Pratipati and her husband came to the guest house and were interviewed in Telugu through an interpreter.

"He's god in my village. I have nothing against him. I have no anger," Pratipati said in a quiet voice, while looking down. "We don't have any anger. She died of gas poisoning."

She and her husband spent about $1,000 to marry off their oldest daughter two years ago, a large sum for this struggling family whose earnings of $1 per day reflected the country's per capita income.

Dowry is based on the practice of boys remaining in the family when they marry, retaining the family wealth. Girls, on the other hand, live with their husband's family, taking the inheritance or dowry.

"It's still a big problem," said Sanjoy Banerjee, professor of international relations at S.F. State. "There are efforts to deal with it. At the same time, the incentives for it persist because of the way marriage is thought of."

Though Indian women have made progress in gaining social equality, Banerjee believes practices like the dowry reflect bias.

"From the point of view of the parents, that inheritance goes outside the family," said Banerjee. "So it's not just an unpleasant thing. It's a harmful thing."

Pratipati admitted one of the main reasons she and her husband had decided to send their two daughters to America was because the couple couldn't afford any more weddings or dowries.

"We don't have any properties. We live just with our hands," Pratipatis said in a subdued tone as she placed her callous hands together.

Rich vs. poor

Reddy, in contrast, was born to a prosperous family whose home sits on a 2-acre lot a few minutes' walk from the Pratipatis.

The ancestral house is a modest building with large pictures of Reddy's family and a framed poster of the Golden Gate Bridge on the front porch wall.

Reddy has made fantastic additions to his home, which has a large metal front gate with the name "L.B. Reddy Estates" across the middle.

Behind the gate is a perfectly manicured lawn with a large white statue of Lord Krishna, a Hindu god riding a chariot pulled by five horses.

The compound has colorful tropical flowers and plants with tall palm trees carefully placed around the property.

Reddy has built a grander three-story house in the rear of the property. The first floor contains the living room, kitchen and dining hall, while the two upper floors have two bedrooms each.

Although the compound is walled, the property sticks out in this rural village where most other houses are, at best, modest brick or concrete buildings with peeling paint and rusty metal gates.

The streets here are narrow and dusty. The only paved road is the main street. A bull pulling a large wooden cart piled with straw barely squeezed through the street in front of Reddy's home.

While Reddy became wealthy in the United States, he never forgot his roots. He has made significant improvements, causing some in the area to call Velvadam "Mini U.S.A."

He has built elementary and high schools, a bus station and a groundwater pump and storage facility to provide drinkable tap water to his community. Most villages in the region still depend on ponds, rivers and large common wells, which are often contaminated with chemicals from the nearby coal power plant and oil storage facility.

Reddy also reportedly spent $1 million to build Lakireddy Bali Reddy College of Engineering in the nearby town of Mylavaram. About 400 students come from all over Andhra Pradesh to study electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and physics.

The college was accredited by the government and opened in 1998.

The campus consists of a pair of two-story buildings with classrooms for lectures, and laboratories for students to practice technical drawing. The school also has extensive computer facilities.

In many ways, the area reflects the extremes of India — raw poverty and the promise of technology. Velvadam is located in Andhra Pradesh, one of the poorest states in India. However, it is also experiencing a high-tech boom. The state's chief minister, Chandra Babu Naidu — who has met Microsoft founder Bill Gates — is overseeing a blossoming software industry.

"He has lots of plans for a Silicon City and things like that," said Abhijit Halder, Indian consul in San Francisco.

Moving forward

In Velvadam, the past and the future collide: The narrow street outside Reddy's school bustles with trucks, scooters, bicyclists, pedestrians and cows; inside, students in white lab coats are in the computer lab.

Reddy has set up a special education trust fund to give scholarships at his engineering school. He regularly sponsors special festivals, including one in the memory of a son who died in a motorcycle accident 14 years ago.

Village leaders say Reddy, who has two living children in the United States, provides an estimated $1,000 each month to help roughly 200 villagers who are in need.

Such philanthropy has earned the respect of many in the village. Velvadam residents even say Reddy is a savior.

Reddy's admirers say he has also helped people in his village by finding ways to bring young men and women into the United States. Many in the village say that, over two decades, he has helped more than 300 people emigrate to America to better their lives and help relatives in Velvadam by sending home money.

India is among the leading countries of origin for U.S. immigrants. The Asian Indian population is now the third-largest Asian American ethnic group, after Chinese and Filipinos. They represent 13 percent of the Asian American population.

There are 1.2 million Asian Indians in the United States, according to the U.S. Census in 1997. Only a fourth live in the West; more than one-third live in the Northeast. They are the only major Asian American group not concentrated in the West, probably a result of early settlement patterns.

Criminal charges

Immigration authorities in the United States charge that Reddy has been illegally bringing people in from areas in and around his home village, using fake names, ages and relations.

In the case of the Pratipatis' two daughters, authorities believe they were brought from India for "the purposes of prostitution and for other immoral purposes."

The girls posed as the daughters of a man named Venkateswara Vemireddy, who authorities say was paid by Reddy to bring the sisters over from Velvadam last August. An affidavit filed in federal court in Oakland alleged that Vemireddy had sought work in the United States from Reddy and had been told his son, Vijay Lakireddy, would arrange a work visa if Vemireddy helped bring the sisters into the country.

The girls' mother said Vemireddy had told her that he would pay for all costs of taking the girls to the United States and that he would "recoup the costs in the U.S."

Vemireddy's sister also came with him, posing as his wife.

N. Kishore, police inspector of Krishna District, which includes Velvadam, said when he interviewed Vemireddy's parents, they had no idea that their son had fraudulently emigrated to the United States.

"What they know is that their son has gone to USA for some job," Kishore said. "They didn't even know that their daughter was gone."

Since Reddy's Jan. 14 arrest, Kishore's office has been investigating how Vemireddy — the Pratipatis' supervisor on the construction crew — his sister and the Pratipati daughters obtained passports.

Kishore said all requests for passports would have to be initially cleared by his office if the applicants live in the Krishna District. No such records were found in 1999.

He said there were six applications for passports from Velvadam last year and the same number in 1998. All applicants were women between the ages of 20 and 60.

Kishore added Vemireddy might have gotten the passports in Hyderabad, a major city about 120 miles west of Velvadam, because Vemireddy's sister lived there, and they could have used her address.

"The passports were not taken from our branch," he said. "That much we know."

Coming to the U.S.

According to court records, when Vemireddy, his purported wife — who turned out to be his sister — and the two girls arrived at San Francisco International Airport last August, Reddy came to pick them up.

While Reddy gave a studio apartment to Vemireddy and his sister, he stashed the two girls in a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Berkeley near his Reddy Realty office and the adjacent Pasand Madras Cuisine restaurant on Shattuck Avenue.

The girls had a third roommate, who also had been recently brought over by Reddy from Velvadam, according to court records. Authorities charge that Reddy had sexual relations with all three girls in Velvadam, and that pattern continued when they moved to Berkeley.

The Pratipatis' surviving daughter told authorities in the United States that she had been given to Reddy by her parents when she was younger.

Lakshmi Pratipati denied those allegations. She said her daughters had been kept home and hadn't worked in any of Reddy's houses in Velvadam. The girls' mother said she couldn't believe someone with Reddy's reputation would cause any harm to her daughters.

"He's not the person of that type," she said.

Incidents of Indian families giving up daughters are rare, said Banerjee.

"The chances of it happening to even a poor girl is very small," he said. "It involves extremely poor families and not just daughters. When I hear of child bonded labor — which is essentially what this case would be if the allegations are true — it's a bad way in which a family deals with its poverty."

When asked why her story was different from her daughter's accounts, Pratipati said she didn't know why her daughter would say something like that.

Pratipati started crying when the subject turned to her deceased daughter.

Kept in the dark

Pratipati and her husband said the girls had never written letters since moving to the United States. The couple did talk to the girls on the phone about three months ago.

"I asked, 'Are you doing fine?' They said they were doing fine, so I told them just to be careful," Germany Pratipati said.

Lakshmi Pratipati said she had finally gotten word that one of her daughters had died only a few weeks ago. The couple still didn't know which daughter had died until an Examiner reporter told them during an interview last Tuesday.

Halder said the Indian Consulate in San Francisco had not officially confirmed the identity of the dead girl, nor had it been in contact with the parents.

"We have not done that," Halder said. "It takes a little time. There is an investigation at the local level."

Germany Pratipati said he had asked his relatives to approach Reddy's brother, Venkateswara Lakireddy, who is vacationing in Velvadam, to find out what exactly had happened.

"He said he doesn't know anything and that he's just here for a holiday," Germany Pratipati said.

Venkateswara Lakireddy said he had nothing to say to the Pratipatis because he didn't know them personally.

"If I don't know (the girls' parents), what is it to me? Why should I talk to them?" Lakireddy said, sitting on the front porch of his six-bedroom, two-story house with marble floors.

Lakireddy said he was a U.S. citizen and lived in Berkeley, but traveled to Velvadam every year from January to mid-March.

He described Reddy as a gentle and kind man who "helped everyone. As far as I know, he's a god in this village," Lakireddy said.

That sentiment was not without support in this dusty town with narrow windy streets that snake from one end of the town to another.

A few minutes after an Examiner reporter and photographer entered the village, white banners went up with phrases in English: "BALI REDDY IS OUR GOD'S GIFT. BALI REDDY IS INNOCENT" and "LAKIREDDY BALI REDDY IS OUR GOD."

Many banners also included endorsements from local groups, including the elders of the village and the local chapter of the Lions Club.

A village of supporters

The village's top police officer also was quick to point out some of the "wonderful things" Reddy had done for the community.

"You want to see some of the buildings he's built? We can show you," Inspector S. Prasada Rao said eagerly.

Rao and his subordinate officers insisted on giving a guided tour of Velvadam, which mostly involved Reddy's properties.

Even the village's chief administrative officer keeps a scrapbook of newspapers clippings, political advertisements and records of Reddy's contributions to the area.

"He's very good; he's done a lot of (projects) in the village," said B. Chandrasekharabanu, 40.

He added that since Reddy's arrest, many villagers had been praying for him in temples and churches.

"They've been all praying together that he would be freed," said Chandrasekharabanu.

Even Venkateswara Rao, father of the Pratipati girls' roommate, did not believe the allegations against Reddy, including the charge that his daughter had been sexually abused. Rao said she had started working for Reddy three years ago doing housework, and had cleaned an apartment building and cooked in his Berkeley restaurant when she arrived in the United States.

Rao, who lives a few doors from Reddy in Velvadam and works as a gardener for him, said his daughter had sent 10,000 rupees, or $238, home last fall.

When news of Reddy's release on $10 million bail arrived in Velvadam nearly two weeks ago, some villagers spilled into the streets to celebrate.

Such reaction is not unusual considering the kind of influence and clout Reddy has in his hometown, said Sayed Akbar, senior reporter for the New Indian Express. He has been covering news in the area for about four years.

"He has a good reputation and enjoys wide support from people," he said.

The support ranges from some top politicians in the region to the lowliest on the socioeconomic lad der, Akbar said.

Some political candidates have even used Reddy's picture in newspaper advertisements during their campaigns.

Buying trust

For some of the less fortunate, Reddy gains confidence and trust by inviting all kinds of people to various celebrations and festivals, Akbar said.

"He's been doing all these activities to get people's support and confidence," Akbar said. "That's why people send their sons and daughters to America, because they have faith in him."

As for the Pratipatis' surviving daughter in the United States, authorities say she will be kept in protective custody until the case has been resolved.

Although she misses her daughter, Lakshmi Pratipati is unsure whether returning to Velvadam would be the best thing for her.

"I'd rather her be happy there than come back," Pratipati said.

When asked why she didn't want her daughter to come home, she said: "It's because of our poverty.

"Please tell my daughter that I hope she is happy wherever she is," Pratipati said.

Annie Nakao of The Examiner staff and Viji Sundaram, of India West and New California Media, contributed to this report.


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