Supreme Court rejects Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple Trust’s plea to exempt it from audit

The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a plea by the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple Trust (SPSTT) to exempt it from a special audit of accounts spanning 25 years.

In a judgment in July last year, the court ordered that the trust’s finances be audited along with that of the temple for 25 years.

The SPSTT wanted the court to modify its direction and confine such an audit to the temple and not include it.

On Wednesday, the court refused the plea. A Bench of Justices U.U. Lalit, S. Ravindra Bhat and Bela M. Trivedi held that the July 2020 order did not intend to confine the audit to the temple alone. It said the SPSTT had agreed to cooperate with the audit in their submissions to the court.

“In the light of developments leading to the passing of the judgment dated July 13, 2020, it is quite clear that the audit contemplated was not intended to be confined to the temple but was also with respect to SPSTT... We are certain that SPSTT will render complete cooperation in the conduct of special audit,” the court noted.

It stated that the financial crisis mentioned by the temple’s administrative and advisory committees due to the pandemic lockdown in its report called for “immediate action”.

“We, therefore, direct that the special audit, as referred to hereinabove, with respect to Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple and SPSTT be completed as early as possible and preferably within three months from the date of this order,” it ordered.

The court, however, refrained from passing orders on the trust’s plea to declare it an “independent and distinct entity” from the temple. The trust wanted to be outside the administrative control of the temple committees formed under the Travancore Cochin Hindu Religious Endowments Act of 1950.

The trust was formed by the erstwhile Travancore ruler in 1965 for “the perpetual continuation of the devotional offerings to the temple, other specified religious rites and certain functions integral to the royal family traditions.”

‘Very difficult times’

On September 13, in the last hearing before the court reserved the judgment, the administrative committee of the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple informed the court that the temple was passing through “very difficult times” financially. The panel, led by the Thiruvananthapuram District Judge, had said it was necessary to know how much of the temple’s property was with the trust.

“My properties are also with the trust... In April 2014, the Supreme Court’s amicus curiae had recommended that 25 years of accounts of both the temple and the trust should be audited... The trust used to care for the day-to-day expenses of the temple,” senior advocate R. Basant, representing the committee, had submitted.

The committee had explained that the court, in tJuly 2020 judgment upholding the Travancore royals’ right of shebaitship over the temple, had ordered an audit “as suggested by the amicus curiae”.

Mr. Basant had argued that the judgment referred to an April 15, 2014, report filed by senior advocate Gopal Subramanium, who was then amicus curiae.

‘Special audit’ by ex-CAG

In his report, the amicus had recommended a “special audit” to be conducted by former Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) Vinod Rai of the 25 years of accounts of both the temple and the SPSTT.

Mr. Basant had stressed that the temple and the trust could not be viewed separately and needed to be audited together. “The temple is under great financial constraints. Its monthly expenses come to ₹1.25 crore... That is why they [SPSTT] are asking to be excluded. The trust has ₹2.89 crore of cash and ₹1.95 crore of assets as per a report made by former CAG Vinod Rai... Need to go into how much they have now...,” he had contended.

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2022 8:11:41 AM |

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