The DMK government in Tamil Nadu has been boasting that they have recovered temple lands worth Rs.2600 crore and even launched a book giving details about it. Temple activists have refuted these claims and accuse the DMK government of glossing over the facts in a perceived attempt to be accepted as a pro-Hindu party. While on one hand they claim to be not anti-Hindu, on the other hand they encourage elements that abuse and denigrate Hindu deities by giving silent support.
A few days ago the TNHRCE department released a book on temple properties recovered after DMK took over. The book is named ‘Temple Properties Recovered by the Endowment Board, 2021-2022’. CM MK Stalin had written the foreword saying ‘It is a document written making temple properties their own’. Temple activist TR Ramesh says that while it is appreciable that measures are taken to document temple properties, the so-called documents of recovery of properties raise suspicion for those who have been observing HRCE’s atrocities for a decade.
He alleges that the department has hidden information from the CM. In 1986, HRCE had mentioned in its policy draft that temple lands amount to 5.25 lakh acres. But now the department says that only 4.78 lakh acres are with the temples most of which are under encroachment. When another temple activist Salem Radhakrishnan had filed a PIL seeking information about the 47,000 acre missing land, the court directed HRCE to file a rejoinder.
But HRCE reportedly hasn’t submitted any reply till now. But it dares to act like it has done a great job recovering temple lands and publishes a book with cooked up numbers. TR Ramesh says that in the book, HRCE admits that it has proper documents only for 3.43 lakh acres of land. He questions how the government, controlling temples for nearly 70 years, could lose the documents of 1.35 lakh acres of temple lands.
In 2012, HRCE had informed that the temples, maths and other endowments under its control own 4.78 lakh acres of agriculture land, 18.47 lakh sq.ft of buildings and 29.15 crore sq.ft of properties. But now it says it doesn’t have proper documents for 1.35 lakh acres of land. This negligence has shocked the temple activists as these temples and their properties have been managed by the HRCE for decades.
TR Ramesh further told Dinamalar, “Doesn’t HRCE know that it’s easy to register the lands in the encroacher’s name if there are no proper records for them? If rent, lease is not paid for more than 6 months, or land is squatted upon without any proper lease document, or it is encroached by illegal means, it should be considered as an encroachment. The truth is that in this manner, 1.5 lakh acres of land and 5 crore sq.ft properties are under encroachment.”
Talking about Salem Sugavaneswarar temple whose hundreds of acres of lands are encroached, Ramesh said, “In the middle of Salem city, the temple owns 113 acre lands. But all of them are under encroachment. But temple documents record them as agricultural land on lease for 31 years on a measly sum of Rs.11,000 per year. But in fact, they should be shown as 50 lakh sq.ft of real estate as they are encroached by houses, schools, shops, colleges, Corporation cemetery, and even a church.”
How deceiving it is to claim it as agricultural land and charge only Rs.11,000 per year for these properties, he asks. Even if HRCE collects Rs.5 per sq.ft per month it should earn around Rs.30 crore every year for the temple. Ramesh further says, “HRCE has claimed in the book that temple lands worth Rs.2567 crore have been recovered. But these lands fetched no rent/lease in the past 30-40 years. If that is collected it would far exceed the current value of the properties. The department is privy to all this information. but it didn’t even make a peep about it. This is not only deception but gives way to corruption as well.”
The DMK government had earlier brought an amendment that anyone can file complaints about encroachment on temple properties. Ramesh questions how many Executive Officers have filed complaints on encroachers using this provision. He points out that the Joint Commissioner offices of HRCE themselves function from temple properties in Trichy, Salem, Mayiladuthurai, Tirunelveli, Madurai, and Nagapattinam and they don’t even pay the rent. There have also been accusations that HRCE took temple money to build offices.
Apart from HRCE offices, the Government Hospital in Srirangam operates from Srirangam Ranganathaswamy temple’s land, Avvai Government School stands on Tiruvannamalai temple’s land and the auditor office of HRCE is located on Dheiveega Peravai’s land which belongs to 9 maths. Rent is not paid to the concerned temples and maths for these buildings, Ramesh says. While collecting a mere Rs.3000 for a 10-ground prime property of Mylapore Kapaleeswarar temple, the department calculated the current market value as rent for Mylapore Ranade Library and sealed the building, he explains.
Ramesh reveals that lakhs of square feet of many temple properties in Chennai have been leased to educational institutions and that HRCE hasn’t even taken any measures to collect the lease amount properly for the past 30 years. When the ground situation is like this HRCE has been boasting that more than Rs.2000 crore worth of temple properties have been recovered only due to the DMK government’s efforts.
However, the truth is that it is only due to the efforts of activists like Ramesh and Radhakrishnan in identifying and cataloging encroachments on temple properties and filing PILs to retrieve them, that the properties were recovered. Recently temple activists revealed that the 213 acre properties belonging to Sugavaneswarar temple in Salem are in encroachment and one of them is valued at more than Rs.2000 crore. It is to be noted that these numbers are only the properties that have been identified so far. Activists say that there are more temple properties yet to be identified.
Similarly, 134 acres of land belonging to Thiruvengadamudaiyan Venkatesa Perumal temple in Chennai have been alienated to third parties using forged documents and are under encroachment. Radhakrishnan brought this to the notice of the court through a PIL. The Madras High Court has directed the HRCE department to take necessary action to recover the property. While temple activists have been doing yeoman service, which in fact is the duty of HRCE officers, government officials have been accusing them of interfering in temple affairs, threatening officers, and other trumped-up charges.
In April, the court awarded 4 weeks imprisonment and Rs.8000 fine to Radhakrishnan after hearing a petition filed by a retired IAS officer saying that the former has been using wrong information to file PILs and using his status to threaten officials. A similar petition was filed by another individual which the court disposed of and said, “Undoubtedly, large scale corrupt activities are in the public domain, including in temple activities. The vast extent of immovable properties and the jewelleries belonging to the temples are improperly dealt with. Several cases are also pending before various Courts. The whistleblowers are bringing out many such public causes before the Courts and their efforts at no circumstances be strangled by any person.”
So the DMK government appears to be taking all measures to disrupt temple affairs while shamelessly taking credit for the efforts of Hindu activists in recovering temple properties. It should be noted that the HRCE minister himself told in public that a prominent temple like Srirangam Ranganatha Swamy temple has only 24 acres of land now despite owning 330 acres in the 1800s. Even though it is against our interests to let judiciary meddle in temple affairs, it seems to be the only way to even save what remains of temple wealth.