With the famed Sri Venkateswara temple atop Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh closed to devotees for close to two months now due to the COVID-19 lockdown, the revenues of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) have hit rock bottom.
The TTD manages the affairs of the world's richest temple and has said that it has the resources to pay salaries to its employees for the month of May, but does not have enough money to pay salaries for June if the lockdown continues.
There is a solution. The TTD is reported to have nine tonnes of gold reserves and Rs 14,000 crore fixed deposits in various banks but the administration says that it does not want to touch that, as it would mean breaking a long-standing tradition.
Speaking to TNM, TTD Chairman YV Subba Reddy said, "There is a problem (financial crunch). For the last two months, we have closed the darshan to devotees. Our main revenue is from the Hundi collection, besides Arjita Sevas, auction of hair, room rents and other sources".
The temple was closed for devotees on March 19, much before the announcement of the nation-wide lockdown and as a result, the TTD is losing almost Rs 200 crore in revenue every month. The TTD spends Rs 110 crore every month towards payment of salaries, maintenance of temples and security.
"Whether or not we allow devotees, we have to continue conducting pujas and other rituals and also pay the salaries of around 22,000 people including temporary employees. If the lockdown continues, we might have some problems. Somehow, we will try to manage," Subba Reddy said.
Reddy says the temple has the resources to pay salaries for the month of May. He is also confident of mobilising resources to pay salaries and to take care of other expenses for maintenance of the temple for the next month, if required.
"We paid salaries for March and April. We have some reserves kept ready for paying salaries for May. For June, we will have to raise from some other sources," he said.
Asked whether he can draw the money from the TTD's reserves, he insists that they do not want to touch the deposits as it is a 'sentimental issue'.
"Gold and fixed deposits are given by devotees from all the country. That is sentimental. Only Hundi and other collections have to go for our expenditures. That is not the practice or tradition," the Chairman said.
It is clear that the big quandary before the TTD Chairman is to be seen as the man â€˜breaking a traditionâ€™
Sources say that YV Subba Reddy, who is the maternal uncle of Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy and CM Jagan are reluctant to use the reserves as it could lead to a controversy with a communal angle.
Subba Reddy has already been the centre of several controversies with many claiming that he was not a Hindu. Many right-wing groups have also targeted Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy for being a practising Christian, alleging that there was an attempt to 'Christianise' Tirupati.
Though these allegations did not stand ground with even figures like BJP MP Subramanian Swamy backing the TTD chief and calling him a 'devout' Hindu, it seems that the present dispensation is keen only on other solutions.
"It has not been done before. It is not even a question of criticism, just of sentiment, as it has never been done before," Subba Reddy said, when asked if he was worried about criticism.
When asked if he would appeal to devotees if such a situation were to arise as the money would be used to pay employees at the temple, he said, "When the situation comes, we will see. As of now, we are managing and June also, we will try to manage. If it goes beyond that, we will definitely need to honour the payments. When the situation comes, we will take a call on that."
The hill shrine attracts 50,000 to one lakh pilgrims every day. The number on special occasions like the annual Brahmotsavam and festivals goes up to 4-5 lakh. The devotees make offerings in the form of cash, gold and silver jewellery, property deeds and even demat shares.
For 2020-2021, TTD had presented a Rs 3,310 crore budget with the cash offerings by devotees projected at Rs 1,351 crore.