Hindustan Times (Lucknow) - - FRONT PAGE - Deep Joshi let­ters@hin­dus­tan­

The Congress gov­ern­ment in Ut­tarak­hand has an­nounced a monthly pen­sion of ` 800 for around 500,000 Hindu priests, spark­ing off a con­tro­versy with op­po­si­tion BJP ac­cus­ing chief min­is­ter Har­ish Rawat of try­ing to woo Brah­min vot­ers.

All priests who per­form re­li­gious cer­e­monies in house­holds and tem­ples, and are not as­so­ci­ated with the Char Dham – the state’s four pil­grim­age cen­tres of Badri­nath, Kedar­nath, Gan­gotri and Ya­munotri – will be el­i­gi­ble for the scheme, sources said.

Gov­ern­ment schemes for re­li­gious lead­ers have been a con­tentious is­sue in the past. Last year, the Cal­cutta high court barred West Ben­gal chief min­is­ter Ma­mata Ban­er­jee from pay­ing a monthly stipend to thou­sands of imams and muezzins, re­li­gious lead­ers who or­gan­ise prayers in mosques.

Of­fi­cials said the Ut­tarak­hand gov­ern­ment’s decision was aimed at check­ing “dis­tress mi­gra­tion” of priests due to lack of earn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“Puro­hits (priests) aren’t able to earn enough and are hence mi­grat­ing. The pen­sion will check this forced mi­gra­tion,” said ad­di­tional chief sec­re­tary S Raju. Of­fi­cial sources said Char Dham priests were ex­cluded from the scheme since they are gen­er­ally eco­nom­i­cally bet­ter off.

The BJP, how­ever, said the plan was aimed at help­ing the rul­ing Congress in the state where polls are due in 2017. The BJP had swept the hill state in May’s gen­eral elec­tions.

“The CM has ini­ti­ated the pen­sion scheme to help the Congress se­cure the Brah­min vote bank that con­sti­tutes 28-30% of the state’s vot­ers,” said state BJP spokesper­son Suresh Joshi.

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