The state government wants to melt the unused gold in temples, monetise the gold blocks, and build schools and colleges with the money. A PIL wants this stopped.

Madras high court
news Law Thursday, October 28, 2021 - 19:00

The Madras High Court on Thursday ordered the Tamil Nadu government to hold back from melting gold offerings in temples for now. The Tamil Nadu government had announced in the Assembly that it would melt excess gold offerings in the 38,000 temples in the state into bars as part of the ‘Gold Monetisation Scheme’. The money from this would then be used to establish educational institutions in the state, the government said. However, a group called Indic Collective Trust opposed this move, and in an interim order on Thursday, the Madras High Court told the government to pause the melting plans until trustees are appointed to these temples, and can give their inputs on these plans. 

However, the government, through a 3-member committee of judges it has appointed, can continue to take inventory of the gold donations received by all temples under the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) department in the state, the court said. The order was passed by a bench comprising Chief Justice Sanjib Bannerjee and Justice PD Audikesavalu.

The announcement to melt the unused gold in temples was challenged by the Indic Collective Trust through a PIL (Public Interest Litigation). A related petition by AV Gopala Krishnan was also heard along with this matter by the Madras HC. The PIL contended that administration of temples is entrusted to its trustees, and that in the absence of trustees, the HR&CE department cannot decide on melting gold donations made to temples. Citing a statement of the HR&CE minister that there are about 38,000 temples in possession of about 2,000 kg of gold worth about Rs 10,000 crore, the petitioners submitted that the department, coming under a secular state, has no power to melt the gold. 

Hearing the plea, Chief Justice Sanjib Bannerjee asked, “Tell us something, what is the immediate urgency for any interim order? What is the prejudice that would be caused?” To this the petitioner’s counsel submitted that “the speed at which the Tamil Nadu government has been moving on the issue may render the writ petition infructuous if no interim stay is granted.” The counsel also added that plans to execute the gold monetisation scheme announced in the Tamil Nadu Assembly have firmed up and that four colleges, which would be set up using the surplus temple funds, have been announced. 

Following this, the bench agreed that trustees should be appointed to temples before a decision on melting the gold offered to temples is taken. “Without trustees in place, there is no check and balance in the HR&CE Act. You make a statement that we will record that the melting of gold will not be carried out till such time that trustees are put in place,” the bench told Advocate General R Shunmugasundaram.

Melting of gold not a new phenomenon: TN govt tells Madras HC

The advocate general had on Tuesday informed the court that melting of gold in temples was not a new phenomenon. It was being done from 1977, and as much as five lakh grams of gold jewellery had been melted, Advocate-General R Shanmugasundaram told a vacation bench of Justices R Mahadevan and Abdul Quddhose, when the PIL petitions came up for hearing. The AG also added that “some persons were creating a big fuss on the gold monetisation scheme now without being aware of the existence of the scheme since 1977.” 

About five lakh grams of gold was melted into bars and deposited in banks, which earned a revenue of Rs 11.5 crore as interest to the state exchequer. The state government has proposed to melt about 2,137 kg of gold jewellery at the government mint in Mumbai into gold bars and the same would be deposited in nationalised banks, the AG added. 

To monitor the entire process, the Tamil Nadu government had constituted a panel headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court and assisted by two retired judges of the Madras High Court. 

Continue taking inventory but not melting gold

The bench asked the state government to continue taking the inventory of gold donated to temples, while postponing the decision to melt the gold after appointing trustees. The bench stated that for the decision to melt gold, each individual temple has to decide on how much (gold) to melt or monetise. “That decision should not be taken in the absence of trustees…let the inventory go on.” Appreciating the state government for constituting the committee of judges, the bench said, “We are happy that you have members from the judicial fraternity, people with impeccable records. But decisions on melting will be taken after the trustees are appointed."

Related petitions regarding the appointment of trustees to temples in the state will be taken up for hearing on December 15. 

(With inputs from PTI)

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