Bringing relief to a temple archaka seeking better pay, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court directed the State to pass an appropriate order within eight weeks in favour of the petitioner and other employees of Rajagopalaswamy Kulasekara Alwar Temple in Ambasamudram with regard to pay, allowances and other service benefits.
The court was hearing a petition filed in 2019 by the archaka, Periyanambi Narasimha Gopalan, who challenged the government order on re-fixing pay scales of the employees of various temples covered by the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act. Each temple was treated as a separate unit and the employees’ salary was made dependent on the temple’s income and other parameters.
Justice G.R. Swaminathan took into account the fact that the petitioner was getting a monthly salary of ₹750 in 2017, which was enhanced to ₹2,984 when the present petition was filed. It was impossible to lead a decent life with such salaries, he observed.
The court observed that in Tamil Nadu there were thousands of temples, of which many were ancient. Since they had architectural and cultural value, they had to be preserved. This was possible only through the temple staff. When the State had assumed regulatory responsibility for all the public temples, it could not wash away its consequential obligations towards the staff.
The Minimum Wages Act, 1948, provided for fixing the minimum wages in certain occupations. The State having brought the petitioner’s temple under its control could not say the salary payable to the petitioner would depend on the temple’s income.
Temples were public institutions. By maintaining the customary practices of the temple, the petitioner and other temple staff discharged public functions. They had to be paid properly. It was unreasonable to tell them that since their establishment was starved of funds, they had to remain content with the pittance they received. That would be a clear breach of the constitutional obligations. The government was duty-bound to ensure that they were paid proper wages and retained on rolls, the court observed.
It further said the right to life included the right to livelihood. If a person was constrained to work for a salary that was far less than the minimum wage, that was also a breach of Article 21 of the Constitution.
Stating that the petitioner and the others would be entitled to arrears of pay from the date of filing the petition, the court declared the G.O. inapplicable to the temple.