Tamil Nadu Will Not ‘Free’ Temples From State Control. Here’s Why

·8-min read

Tamil Nadu, in the past few months, has been witnessing an intense debate over a campaign to ‘free Hindu temples’. This after, spiritual guru Jaggi Vasudev and right-wing outfits including Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) began harping on their decade-old demand of ‘freeing temples’ from state government control.

Claiming that there are multiple malpractices in the state’s temple administration which falls under the endowment department, Vasudev, in March this year, began a ‘#FreeTNtemples’ campaign and called for people’s support.

Also Read: Temple Control Row: Tamil Nadu FM, Isha Foundation In War of Words

In May, DMK leader and Tamil Nadu’s Finance Minister Palanivel Thiaga Rajan, popularly known as PTR dismissed this demand as “nonsense”, and called Vasudev a “publicity hound, who is trying to find another angle to make money”.

While the debate between PTR and Vasudev’s Isha Foundation has been ongoing for a while, The Quint has found why the state government wants to continue managing the temples through its endowment department. Reason, rampant misappropriation of funds by private parties which can only worsen if control transfers to private hands, state government representatives vouch.

What Is Government’s Stand?

Tamil Nadu government’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) department manages almost 44,000 temples in the state, under the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, 1959.

The department now says it is completely against ‘freeing temples' as it can pave way for several malpractices and misuse of temple funds.

"Temples are not business ventures. And they should be under government control to prevent misappropriation of funds. To prevent mismanagement by temple trusts, government has decided to increase transparency by digitising temple transactions" - Tamil Nadu’s HR&CE Minister, PK Sekar Babu to The Quint

Sources from the HR&CE department further elaborated why temples should be under government control.

“First of all, to whom should we handover the temples after freeing them?” asked a source from the department. “It is false propaganda that the government is looting temple’s revenue. All the income from temples’ hundi boxes, ticket sales, rent or lease collection and auctions of saris and dhotis directly go to the temple’s bank account, that is jointly managed by temple’s Executive Officer (EO) and government appointed trustee.”

The amount from this account, the source said is then used for conducting daily poojas, paying electricity bills, salaries for temple staff, and for temple maintenance.

“Neither the HR&CE’s EO nor the trustee can misuse the funds in the account. In fact, we need to get approvals for using the monthly income from our higher officials. In addition, every year in March, we create a yearly budget and send it to HR&CE commissioner for approval. Only after he approves it, we use the funds.”

Also, be it funds or temple land, the government usually dotes on the temples, and it’s not the other way round, the source adds.

“There is also a misconception that government is paying salaries for temple staff. However, the truth is that, every temple, depending on its total income, returns a percent of its revenue, equivalent to salaries of its staff back to government.”

And HR&CE’s role, the source says is only to supervise the temple administration, accounts and maintenance, among other such duties and it is not to interfere in the agama (traditional practices) followed by the temple during poojas and rituals.

Why Not Privatise?

If temple trustees get caught in misappropriation of funds, the endowment department would take strict action against them, sources vouched.

“Now, this will not be possible if temples are handed over to private persons. At least, when they are under government control, trustees or officers who indulge in malpractices are held accountable and are given suitable punishment. This way, rampant corruption can go unchecked,” the source said.

Also, over the years as society progressed, several people and leaders have fought for equality in temple access.

“After a lot of struggle, people from the lower caste groups were allowed to enter temples. Also, the HR&CE law has got amended over the years under the Dravidian rule, to include women and lower caste people as trustees. Besides, it is only in recent years that women are appointed as EOs,” the source rued.

All these, the source said may roll back if the temple control is handed over to private parties. And temple administration can go in the hands of a few dominant Hindu communities, who may not allow other lower caste communities to enter temple.

Irregularities in Endowments Department?

When asked whether there are any irregularities within the department, the HR&CE source said, “Like every department, there are some malpractices going on here as well. For example, there have been multiple cases, where idols and artefacts have gone missing due to the illegal activities of temple staff”. Whenever corrupt practices surface the department takes action, the source claimed.

Another irregularity, the source says is the appointment of trustees for a temple. For every temple, the source says a set of five trustees are appointed by the government.

Among the five, according to the HR&CE law, one has to be from the Scheduled Castes (SC), one has to be a woman, and the rest three should be from the local community. Also, only ‘god-fearing’ people who are devoted to the temple traditions and rituals are appointed as trustees.

“However, through the years, only members of the two Dravidian majors – All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) have been alternatively appointed as trustees, whenever they were in power.”

This, the source said is a major disadvantage because the politicians appointed as trustees get involved in corruption. “For instance, they may sell temple land to private persons for their own benefit, favour tenders to parties who give them commission, try to redirect funds allotted for temple for themselves through illegal practices and so on. And since they are from the ruling party, they will have little or no fear of getting caught,” the source said.

The practice, however was non-existent for ten years when former chief minister J Jayalalithaa was in power, the source added. “She knew such appointments will lead to corruption. And hence, did not allow it.”

What Is the Solution?

Instead of handing over the temple control to private persons, the HR&CE sources suggest that it will be ideal if some regulations and improvements are made within the department to prevent the existing problems.

One major area that needs improvement is manpower, the source says. “Due to manpower shortage, we are finding it difficult to reclaim encroached temple lands. Many a time, land would have been donated to a temple by a devotee.

“However, they would have not notified us about it. As a result, we get to know it’s a temple land only after a long time. Hence, when we go to reclaim it, the land would have been encroached by locals. And hence, it becomes difficult for us to reclaim it.”

If there’s more staff, such daily affairs of the temples could be monitored closely.

Also, sources pointed out that only some 47 temples in the state are getting good revenue. Several other temples are not getting much revenue because of multiple factors.

"“One of course is the land-reclamation problem. For instance, when the temple land is encroached by some influential persons or those having political influence, reclaiming gets even more tough with us having to face several legal hurdles before getting the land. Due to this, we are unable to make use of the land to make revenue.”" - An endowment department employee 

Sources also said that the government needs to take up temple conservation or restoration activities more frequently.

Endowment Dept to be Transparent

Meanwhile, the Tamil Nadu government on 18 May decided to bring in more transparency in the HR&CE department by digitising all papers regarding properties and assets owned by temples across the state and make them available in the public domain. The move is in line with DMK chief MK Stalin’s poll promise.

Speaking to The Quint, the Commissioner for HR&CE Department, J Kumaragurubaran said,

"To prevent any mismanagement of temple properties, we are now going to make public all details regarding temple properties, both movable and immovable." - Commissioner for HR&CE Department, J Kumaragurubaran to The Quint

In case of immovable properties including temple lands, he says that the entire land will be surveyed digitally or using drones. And accurate land information will be made public. “In addition, a provision will be made to facilitate people to see the real time image of the property through Google Earth.”

The commissioner added that strongrooms are being created at every temple, to secure all movable temple properties like idols and artefacts. The strongrooms will be highly guarded with all the latest security features as recommended by the Madras High Court committee, he said.

In addition, the title documents or pattas for all temple lands (The Department owns more than five lakh acres) will now be in the name of temple deities. And these will be available online. Properties with disputes will also be made public on the HR&CE portal under a separate category, the commissioner said.

Besides, all the registers in temple will be digitised. “We are also ramping up the entire IT infrastructure of the department. Just recently, we sanctioned some two and half crores for purchasing systems and printers. We plan to buy some 300 computers along with multifunction devices so we can scan and upload easily.”

In what seemed to be a peace offering Isha Foundation in May, applauded the state government for its digitalisation promise.

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