Is TN HR&CE going through a cleaning spree or is it just an eyewash?

Amidst the accusations of corruption and negligence, the Tamilnadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) department seems to be going through a cleanup process. After the accusations of HR&CE destroying temples through renovation activities by UNESCO, it’s previous Commissioner Thiru. Veera Shanmugamani was relieved from his duty despite of having two more years of service. Thiru. Veera Shanmugamani was trying to monitor temple treasures such as idols, jewellery and land by setting up a digital library. He formed committees to supervise the renovation works and send him monthly reports. He was also working on a plan to increase rent of the lands owned by the temples which have been mostly encroached and receiving a meagre amount as rent.

It is speculated that he had to be relieved as a scapegoat to protect the irresponsible Executive Officers(EOs) of temples who undertook renovation work without proper knowledge of how to deal with the antiques. It must be noted that the Archeological Survey of India(ASI) accused the EOs of assigning mediocre masons instead of learned Sthapathis and archaeology experts. ASI also offered to help the department of HR&CE with the renovation work. But now it appears that a lot of pursuits are going on in the HR&CE department since the new commissioner took charge.

The speculation is that even though the previous Commissioner tried his best to regulate the matters in the department it went in vain due to the inefficiency and careless attitude of the Assistant Commissioners (ACs) and EOs. A few days before his relieving from service, he had directed the ACs to issue a notice to shops in Namakkal Anjaneya temple and Narasimhar temple who failed to pay rent. The rent of 77 shops was hiked on the 1st of July 2016, and the owners of 49 stores failed to pay an amount of ₹22 lakhs. A notice was sent to these 49 shops. The new Commissioner has now been sending out circulars to the EOs asking them to work on retrieving encroached temple lands worth crores.

The 38,000 plus temples under the control of HR&CE own 1,83,669 acres of farmland, 2,18,226 acres of uncultivable land and 20,766 acres of rain-fed land. They also own 22,600 buildings and 33,655 plots. It is estimated that all these properties value up to several thousand crores most of which are currently trespassed. It is also alleged that temple administrations don’t act on complaints from Hindu organisations and devotees about these intrusions which help certain individuals earn crores. Now, the numerous complaints from devotees have prompted the commissioner to take action, and he directed all regional ACs and ECs to hasten the process to inspect the temple properties, remove encroachments and bring them under the department’s control.

According to a HR&CE official, some corrupt EOs, who must issue notice & file case on the encroachers as per the Endowment law, are in cahoots with the illegal occupants and allow them to use the properties in return for bribes. He also says that the above mentioned behavior of EOs results in loss of temple revenue which is why the commissioner has issued such a directive. She has transferred Coimbatore region’s ACs within a few days after taking charge. It has to be seen in the future, whether it was an attempt at curbing corruption or just a routine. One hopes that she will also look into devotees demand to appoint Arangavalars for the temples under HR&CE. As per the TNHRCE act of 1959,  Arangavalar committee has the authority on temple administration and even the EO has to work under the committee. The committee appointment is made by different authorities based on the revenue of the temple. For revenue upto 2 lakhs, less than 10 Lakhs and greater than 10 lakhs it is appointed by the AC, HR&CE Commissioner and State government respectively.

But for the last six years, neither the government nor the HR&CE has cared about the appointment of the committees. This enabled the HR&CE officials to be appointed as Thakkar (head of the committee) as an interim measure which is valid only for three months. However due to the government’s negligence, HR&CE officials continue to hold the post and in turn the authority for the last six years. At some places, the situation is so worse that a single official holds the position of Thakkar of 30 temples. Several devotees across these regions have allege that the state has been lying in Madras High Court and Supreme Court that the temple administration is with the Arangavalar committee. They lament that instead of looking at the temples with devotion the officials see them as money vending machines and keep the post to themselves to have control over the revenue.

Recently another controversy popped up, when the HR&CE questioned IFP (French Institute of Pondicherry). IFP is a Pondicherry based French institute that collects and digitizes the data of Panchaloha(mixture of 5 metals) idols, stone sculptures and paintings from 4000 temples across Tamil Nadu. This institute put up the data of these treasures with their description online. HR&CE states that they obtained permit only to photograph the treasures not to use them in anyway which raises a suspicion among the devotees about HR&CE trying to hide some malicious activity.

Recently, the Madras High Court had reprimanded both the HR&CE and the Chief Secretary for not following it’s instructions on appointing IG Pon Manickavel (who was transferred despite of doing a tremendous job in the idol wing) as the Special Officer to investigate idol theft cases. In the next hearing the judge had also warned that he would issue a contempt notice to the Chief Secretary and DGP as they didn’t follow his directions in transferring all the 531 idol theft cases for investigation under IG Pon Manickavel. Even though they had appointed the IG as the Special Officer as per the court’s direction, they transferred only 19 cases which according to the government was as per the request of the IG.

From this it is evident that, though the HR&CE has faced much criticism from Hindu organisations, activists and devotees for their unpardonable behavior towards our temples, some of its officials seem to be trying to make a change despite the hold of corrupt politicians on the department making them face the brunt of accusations. It remains to be seen whether the efforts of such honest officials of HR&CE and other constitutional institutions, will result in the mending of its ways and cleaning up the filth which has been residing in the ancient temples of Tamil Nadu for quite a number of years now.