Greed, graft and grab: The sorry state of temple lands
Despite being active if not ardent temple-goers, most Hindus, practising or otherwise, are hardly aware of the sorry state of our temples’ properties. This despite the valiant efforts in recent years by a variety of lawyers, activists, journalists, bureaucrats, public figures, and esteemed members of our judicial services to rectify the situation. Though deeply interested in the cultural, social, spiritual significance of our historic centres of worship and pilgrimage, I must confess that I was no exception to this general state of ignorance, bordering on the avoidance of the unpleasant, which is a common trait of many ordinary Hindus.
My eye-opening experience came during a recent visit to Tamil Nadu where I met a group of advocates and retrievers of temple idols. One of them looked me straight in the eye to say, “Temples are being bulldozed, idols stolen and sold…let alone doing something, most people don’t even know about it.” A little bit of research revealed that this was not far from the truth. Else, how might we explain the baffling headline in a leading newspaper on July 1, 2018: “HC directs HR&CE to trace and restore ‘missing’ temple tank.” Some actually stole a temple tank and no one noticed? Sounds bizarre, but that is exactly what happened with the Vadapalani Vengeeswarar Temple, whose adjoining pond went missing.
Not that this was some tiny puddle that could be easily forgotten. The records show it measured 2.68 acres of prime property. Retired police inspector, J Mohanraj, who drew it to the notice of the court, believes that 26 residential and five commercial buildings were over that temple tank. The government lawyer claimed that the tank was transferred to a private party by one of the former trustees with the connivance of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Board. But the matter gets murkier when we ask how permission was granted to build such structures on a water body. As recently as 2005, the tank showed clearly on Google Earth.
One of the heroes of the restoration of stolen or misappropriated temple lands is Justice R Mahadevan of the Madras High Court. Earlier this year, on February 12, Justice Mahadevan directed the HR&CE to submit information on temple lands in Tamil Nadu which have been encroached or grabbed. He ordered notices to be issued to offenders to surrender misappropriated temple properties voluntarily or face penal action. He also asked that information on temple lands be tabulated and put up on the HR&CE website. Given the rampant and ongoing theft of temple lands and properties, Justice Mahadevan’s interventions were an almost desperate attempt to retrieve the situation. It is estimated that temple lands in Tamil Nadu alone have come down in the last five years from 5.25 lakh acres to 4.78. In just five years, a shockingly massive 50,000 acres are in the hands of encroachers and land grabbers!
In August, the HR&CE actually came back with what it had done, pursuant to the HC’s orders. Inspection committees had been formed for some 40,000 temples across the state to identify and retrieve encroached properties. Over 28,500 notices have been sent to some of the encroaches of over 3,800 temples, with rents and arrears of over 14 crores recovered from tenants. The Integrated Temple Management System (ITMS), a web portal proposed by the HR&CE, aims at covering all activities related to the administration of Hindu temples and religious institutions in Tamil Nadu. As a first step, temple land records will be digitised and made publicly available, so that illegal sale or encroachment becomes more difficult.
But this is only a drop in the pond, so to speak. The real challenge is monumental. That is because this graft and grab of temple properties are not confined to Tamil Nadu alone. It is prevalent in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and other states as well. Not only are Hindu temples “easy money” for cash-strapped state administrations, but some of these funds are also used, it seems, to support politically motivated government sponsorships and grants to so-called “minority” causes. For instance, it is reported that nearly 43,000 temples in Andhra Pradesh have been taken over by the government, with 82% of their income being used for “unstated” secular purposes.
The problem is that in post-independence, our state has carried, possibly unconsciously, the legacies of our two former rulers, British colonialists as well as Muslim conquerors. Both these devised ways, ranging from outright loot and plunder to more subtle forms of administrative control and revenue siphoning, to misuse the wealth of our rich temples and religious institutions. So-called minority institutions, including the SGPC, escaped such harmful state control, but Hindu temples continue to suffer. They are worst off in states like Tamil Nadu, where Dravidian parties and politics legitimised, even augmented, their exploitation. At last, the time has come to reverse if not transform this trend.