The Calcutta High Court on September 13 refused to interfere in the decision of the West Bengal government to extend the grant to Puja Committees for organising community Durga pujas and disposed of a series of petitions challenging the State government’s move.
The Court, while emphasising that the stand of the State is that the disbursement of the fund is for “public purpose” said that grant should be strictly utilised for the purpose.
“The stand of the State is that the disbursement of the fund is for public purpose and not to propagate or encourage a particular religion. Having regard to the material which has been pointed out above, we are not inclined to interfere in the decision of the State to extend the grant to Puja Committees. However, we are of the opinion that the grant should be strictly utilised for the purpose which has been mentioned in the Order dated 6th of September, 2022 so that the public purpose contained therein is achieved,” the order by Division Bench of Chief Justice Prakash Shrivastava and Justice Rajarshi Bharadwaj said.
The West Bengal government has decided to increase the grant to Durga puja clubs this year from ₹50,000 to ₹60,000 each. About 40,028 clubs (37,028 under West Bengal police and 3,000 under Kolkata police) will get a cash grant of ₹60,000 each which will cost ₹240.16 crore to the State exchequer.
In the order, the division Bench imposed six conditions which included that the “grant will be released only to those Clubs/Puja Committees who in the previous year had utilised the same for the purpose it was granted and had duly submitted the utilisation certificate within time”.
The order also added that the grant is to be distributed through the West Bengal police and Kolkata police; therefore, it will be the responsibility of the police to ensure that the grant is utilised for the public purpose.
The order added that the Puja Committees “will submit the utilisation certificate along with the supporting vouchers to the sub-divisional officers in the district and to the Designated Officers within the jurisdiction of the Kolkata police not later than 15th of November, 2022” and competent Officers of the State government will duly scrutinise these utilisation certificates and ascertain if the amount distributed to the Clubs/Puja Committees.
The West Bengal government in an Order on September 6 had stated that the grant to community clubs is “for assisting in showcasing the cultural heritage of Durga puja, to promote tourism in the State of West Bengal and community policing activities of the State government..”
The advocate general in his arguments before the Court has referred to the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) issued by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India to point out that Durga puja is the most important socio-cultural and religious event in the Bengali festival.
During the arguments in the Court, the counsels of the petitioners relied upon the judgment of this Court in the matter of Bharatiya Janata Party vs. State of West Bengal reported in 2013(4) CHN (Cal) 419, which was case relating to grant of honorarium to the imams and muezzins of various mosques in the State of West Bengal.
In the previous order, the Division Bench of this Court had found that in the “garb of so-called public purpose, public money was being spent in a manner which offends constitutional provision but that is not so in the present case”.
West Bengal has started awarding grants to community Durga pujas in the State in 2018. From ₹10,000 grant to 18,000 clubs in 2018 the grant has increased six times and the number of clubs has more than doubled.
The grant to Durga puja clubs was challenged in 2018 and the High Court had allowed the State government’s decision, after the government argued that the grant to clubs was for “community policing”.
After the petitioners approached the Supreme Court, the apex court on 12th of October, 2018 directed that the grant is to be distributed through the West Bengal Police and Kolkata police.