The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) department has informed the Madras High Court that out of 44,121 temples under its control in the State, more 37,000 do not get enough revenue to appoint more than one person, who could double up as a priest besides being a caretaker, and that 11,999 cannot afford expenses for performing even one puja a day.
Justices M.M. Sundresh and R. Hemalatha were told that there were only 7,000-odd financially stable temples which could take care of their needs from their own sources of revenue. Even among them, only 1,000 temples had surplus funds invested in banks in the name of the deity of the temple concerned, HR&CE Joint Commissioner (Legal) S. Sivakumar said.
The submissions were made in a counter filed in response to a public interest litigation petition by R.R. Gopaljee, publisher of a Tamil daily. He had sought for a direction to the State government to pay financial assistance to all skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labourers dependent on temples which remain locked since March 25 due to the lockdown to fight COVID-19.
In its counter affidavit, the HR&CE department said, there were no such categories of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled employees in temples. The Archakas, Poosaris and Bhattacharyas were either paid a monthly salary or were dependent on the public offerings (Thattu Kaasu). Some of them were also given a share in the ticket collections at the temples concerned.
The remuneration for musicians, sweepers, torch bearers were fixed based on the financial resource and capacity of individual institutions and paid from the temple funds. Claiming that the financial position of a majority of the temples in the State was very poor, the department said, the monthly salaries to the temple staff were still being paid even during the lockdown.
To assist those dependent upon offerings by the devotees, the State government had initially issued a Government Order to pay financial assistance of Rs.1,000 to 33,627 beneficiaries under the Village Temple Poosaries Welfare Fund. Thereafter, it issued another GO for extending similar benefits to 13,000 priests and others in HR&CE temples.
Apart from the special financial assistance, all of these people were also entitled to additional financial assistance of Rs. 2,000 and free groceries provided by the government to ration cardholders. The counter stated the petitioner’s insistence on paying Rs.15,000 a month to “skilled and semi-skilled” temple staff and Rs.7,500 per month to unskilled staff was arbitrary.
Further, denying his claim that 35% of the income of temples was being spent on salaries to HR&CE department staff, the Joint Commissioner said, only 8% of the income of about 7,000 temples was spent on salaries. The salaries were initially paid out of the Consolidated Fund of the State and then reimbursed from the funds of the religious institutions.
Around 37,000 temples do not contribute anything since their annual assessable income was less than Rs.5,000, the court was told. After perusing the counter affidavit, the judges directed the department to submit by Wednesday the details regarding the number of temples that had been given relaxation now from the COVID-19 lockdown and the number that remain closed as on date.