The BJP has slammed the government and called the move to recover arrears as a ‘vindictive move against temples’ in the state.

A collage of CM Jagan and Tirumala Tirupati temple in the background
news Controversy Thursday, July 21, 2022 - 13:54

Several temples in Andhra Pradesh have had to prematurely cancel their fixed deposits to pay pending statutory fees that they owe the Endowments Department for the past eight years. This, after the state Endowments Commissioner, M Hari Jawaharlal, issued a circular on June 18, 2022, directing all Executive Officers (EO) of temples to clear pending statutory fees that are owed to the Endowments Department or face disciplinary action. 

The government issuing directions to collect the pending dues, however, has become a tussle between the state and the BJP, with the latter terming it an onslaught on Hindu temples. The government however says the dues are needed by the department to help temples. A closer look at the issue reveals that years of lethargy by two consecutive governments has now come to the fore.

As per the Andhra Pradesh Charitable and Hindu Religious Institutions Act of 1966, temples earning above Rs 5 lakh annually are supposed to pay 8% of it to the Endowments Administrative Fund (EAF), 9% to the Common Goods Fund (CGF), 3% to the Archakas Welfare Fund (AWF), and 1.5% towards audit fees. This means that as per the Act, all temples earning above Rs 5 lakh per annum are to pay 21.5% of their annual income to the Endowments Department. But many have not been paying. 

According to the department, 1,776 endowment institutions have arrears amounting to Rs 353.80 crores; out of which temples have remitted Rs 42 crores in the months of April and May. Temples often cite pending development work and payments to contractors as reasons for not paying the arrears. They add that COVID-19 has added to their woes with low footfall amid the pandemic. As per the latest government circular, however, temples have been instructed to clear their pending dues even if they need to encash their fixed deposit receipts in order to do so. Deputy Commissioners of the Department have been entrusted with the responsibility to identify all those who don’t pay arrears and submit draft articles of charges.  

‘Need money for development of temples’

Following the controversy, Kottu Satyanarayana, Andhra Pradesh Endowments Minister who is also the state’s Deputy Chief Minister, has attempted to clarify that, contrary to the BJP’s claims, the government has been lenient towards collecting dues. 

“The Act necessitates that all temples with annual income above Rs 5 lakh pay the statutory fees, but we are collecting it only from temples with an annual income more than Rs 20 lakh. This money, collected under the Common Goods Fund (CGF), is used for renovation of temples and for development work. There are several applications pending for various work to be carried out to which the department committed Rs 225.82 crores. The department also has bills to pay. We wish to provide the best facilities for devotees, and for all this, funds are required. Several temples are keeping the money as FDs instead of clearing their arrears.”

The BJP has alleged in the past that money collected by the Endowments Department- which is meant for preserving, protection and promotion of Hindu temples and Hindu religion- was diverted for the government’s Amma Vodi welfare scheme (financial assistance to mothers). There have also been allegations that the funds were being used by officials to buy official cars, maintenance of endowments offices etc. Dismissing allegations of misuse, the Endowments Minister said, “It is unfortunate that the chief of a national party is making such baseless and misleading allegations. They are trying to portray as if Hindu temples are being fleeced. Not a single rupee can be diverted. Everything is happening in a very organised and systematic way with regular reviews by the concerned officials.”    

The TDP was in power in Andhra Pradesh from 2014 to 2019, while the Jagan Mohan Reddy-led YSRCP government came to power in 2019. From the accounts presented by the government, it appears both governments did not insist on the fee collection.

‘One-time payment drains temple funds’

This has been pointed out by Andhra Pradesh Brahmin Association president, Dronamraju Ravi Kumar. He has demanded that the officials responsible for the pendency for more than eight years be punished. "The government is now calling the fixed deposits as surplus funds. Who would come to the rescue of the temples, if there is another pandemic like COVID-19? Forcing the temples to close FDs to pay all arrears at once is not right on part of the department. That said, as per the Act, it is also the responsibility of temples to pay their dues to the department.”

Demanding that those who are responsible for this mess should be taken to task, the Brahmin Association president alleged, “During the time of bifurcation, the officials at the helm of affairs encouraged temples not to pay the statutory dues. The Endowments Department was also to be bifurcated between Andhra Pradesh and Telangana; and the existing funds of the department were to be divided in a 60-40 ratio between Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, respectively. Hence, the temples were asked not to pay the fees they owed to the department during the time of bifurcation, and no effort was made to collect it for years after. Temples continued to adopt the easy-going approach even after bifurcation. Let the government punish those responsible for this mess. There is a separate department for collection of the CGF contributions from the temples. It failed in its duty,” he said.

And even the latest action by the department was not spontaneous, it was prompted by a warning from the Vigilance department. 

Vigilance Dept memo helps cash-strapped Endowment Dept

The Endowments Department received 22 reminders from the Vigilance Department before a circular was issued to endowment institutions. 

Speaking to TNM, Endowments Commissioner, M Hari Jawarharlal said, “The Vigilance Department’s memo warning strict action was preceded by 22 reminders to the Endowments Department regarding pending statutory payments. Initially, the reminders weren’t taken seriously, but when the memo was sent, we also took it seriously. Considering the department’s resource crunch, receiving the arrears now would help fulfill the pending requests for renovation and development. The circular issued says Executive Officers of temples would face disciplinary action if the arrears are not paid.”

“There are several needs and grievances put forward by the Archakas. Though their salaries are paid by the respective temples, the welfare of the Archakas is important to be looked into. We will be able to fulfil these requests for renovation and welfare only if we receive the arrears from the respective temples,” added the Commissioner.  

According to the department, there are several temples in rural regions which are in need of support from the Endowments Department for pooja materials and ritual ingredients, for which they need funds from clearing arrears. 

BJP claims vindictive attitude towards temples 

BJP state president Somu Veerraju wrote a letter to Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy saying that the circular was detrimental to the interests of the Hindu temples as it would cripple their finances. He also termed the move an “act of vengeance” against temples.

Speaking to TNM, BJP leader Dinakar Lanka said, “Temples are being considered as revenue generating assets. Temple money is for temple development. Why is the Endowments Department targeting only temples and not alluding their power on other religious organisations?”

Both Somu Veerraju and Dinakar Lanka alleged that imams and pastors were being paid from the government treasury and called this discrimination. However, it is not just imams and pastors, but also archakas in Hindu temples who are entitled to be paid a sum of Rs 5,000 monthly, as per an announcement by CM Jagan in April 2020. The BJP's claims that imams and pastors are paid the honorarium from the government fund whereas the honorarium for priests is paid from the contributions collected from the temples. 

 

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