Tamil Nadu

Beyond faith: The contentious issue of temple lands in Tamil Nadu

A sivan temple at Thanjavur which has been converted into a dwelling unit. Photo: Special Arrangement  

There are many rich temples in the State, if you go purely by the vast tracts of land bequeathed to them by devotees at various points in time. Consider this fact: the lands, if put together, constitute 1,934 sq. km (4.87 lakh acres) — that’s larger than the area under the Greater Chennai Corporation.

The lands were mostly bequeathed in trust by devotees and prominent members of the community so that they would yield income that could pay for lighting lamps, making neivedhyams (holy food offerings) for the deity and the conduct of specific festivals.

However, here is another fact, one that flies in the face of the above statistics: of the 38,600-odd temples under the control of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department, only 331 have an annual income of more than ₹10 lakh. There are 34,099 temples with an annual income of less than ₹10,000. There are thousands of temples where just one puja is performed. This, despite owning vast tracts of land and other properties, registered in their name.

Rampant encroachments have eaten into the income of temples. Even large temples are struggling to collect dues from lessees who owe temples amounts running into crores of rupees. A classic example is the case of the “missing” 1,200 acres of Kattalai lands in Pudukkottai district, gifted to the Srirangam Sri Ranganathan temple. “The lands are being sold off in small parcels but the temple does not enjoy the fruits of such sales. Similarly, a chathram (public guest house) used to be there near the Chathram bus stand in Tiruchi where a trust had been instituted to feed people during festivals. But the land has been illegally sold off. Thyagaraja Swamy has lands all over Tiruvarur and some 12 private schools have constructed buildings on lands belonging to the temple but they don't pay any rent,” said a former HR&CE official.

Court stays G.O.

Before the proposal was stayed by the Madras High Court on Friday, the State government issued a G.O. under which lands belonging to temples that have been encroached upon by poor landless persons would be purchased by it and the encroachers would be given pattas in their names.

“The proposal of the government was that it would buy the lands based on the recent land acquisition Act and temples that do not get enough income would be able to get a steady income since the money from sale of land would be deposited in the name of the deity with only the interest to be used for running the temple,” explained an official.

In the Cauvery delta, especially Nagapattinam, considered a backward district, temple lands are lying unutilised and remain fallow.

Recovering lost ground: A team of officials clearing encroachments on the land said to belong to Sri Kapaleeswarar Temple in Chennai’s Mylapore.

Recovering lost ground: A team of officials clearing encroachments on the land said to belong to Sri Kapaleeswarar Temple in Chennai’s Mylapore.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu


“These temples are finding it highly difficult to sustain themselves even though they have land. As the land does not fetch any income, it would be better if a portion is earmarked for rural housing and the temples are compensated appropriately,” explained an official. “Under the proposal, as always, the executive officer (E.O.) of the temple will have the power to refuse to part with lands. If he is not satisfied with the rate fixed, he can refuse. The E.O. will send the proposal to the joint commissioner concerned, who in turn will send it to the commissioner. Even before this G.O. there have been instances of land being transferred to government departments for public purposes. We have rejected proposals from Tangedco and various municipalities since the respective temples have objected to the alienation,” the official explained.

The Madras High Court’s stay on the implementation of this G.O. has delighted those who opposed the proposal from the beginning.

The Thiruthondargal Sabai, an organisation involved in reclaiming temple lands, was among the first to condemn the move. A. Radhakrishnan, founder of the organisation, alleged that over “1,000 acres of temple lands” will be lost if this scheme is implemented.

According to Mr. Radhakrishnan’s estimates, there are at least 3,000 acres of encroached temple lands, just in Coimbatore district. “The figure might be higher if we verify with old documents,” he said. Nearly 60% of the available temple lands have been encroached on, he claimed.

The Hindu Munnani had petitioned against issuing pattas to squatters on temple lands. “Temple property does not belong to the State government,” asserted State Executive Committee Member T. Guna.

The Tamil Nadu BJP welcomed the High Court’s order, while slamming the AIADMK government for passing such a G.O. “The court has saved the properties of the temples. The question is when you [the government] have plenty of poromboke land why don’t you give those to these encroachers? Why do you want to issue pattas and for temple lands,” asked K.T. Raghavan, State Secretary, BJP. “I sense something fishy,” he added.

Mr. Raghavan also questioned where the government would get the money to buy the land at a time when it maintained that it did not have enough funds to give hikes to protesting doctors and other government staff.

K.S. Alagiri, TNCC president, said the decision to give pattas to encroachers was wrong. “That will only encourage squatters to take over lands without paying for them. It will lead to a situation where people will think if we encroach on some space, it will be regularised eventually.”

Support for proposal

The CPI(M), however, welcomed the idea. party State Secretary, K. Balakrishnan said: “What we are saying is you should take the land from all places of religious worship and give it to the poor and those who have been staying there for a long time. You take the land and give some money to the temples as a deposit for this land. We are not saying give pattas to those who are doing business, running industries on these lands. Give pattas to farmers who are directly engaged in farming and middle-class people who have been living on these lands after building houses for hundreds of years.”

He claimed that most of the land given to temples was done with the intention of bypassing the Land Ceiling Act. “Our position is that for 200 years, one village is living on temple land… they don’t get any rights. Shouldn’t the government undertake welfare measures,” he asked. The CPI(M) will hold a demonstration to highlight the issue on November 26, and one in the first week of December against the stay ordered by the court.

A retired HR&CE official said that while many welcomed the idea of both the temple and the landless poor benefiting from the proposal, lands bequeathed for a specific purpose could not be sold. “The government can provide lands on lease with the condition that they should not be sold off and if they fail to pay the lease, the contract would be cancelled. Landless agricultural labourers can be provided lands on lease after formulating a proper policy,” he said.

Eviction perils

He went on to suggest that the department should be given more teeth and E.O. vacancies should be filled. “There are temples with 1,000 acres of land and they are under the control of an E.O. who holds additional charge. Protection should be provided to these officers when they take steps to remove encroachers. Three months ago, an E.O. in Tiruvallur district was attacked after he interfered in lands belonging to a Shiva temple in Nyaayiru village,” said another official.

Officials said that they regularly faced a backlash and even received death threats while attempting to retrieve lands belonging to the Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple. Speaking on condition of anonymity, an official from the temple administration said that when they recently went to retrieve temple land from Tirumangalam block, they were stopped by the local police and asked to return despite having the protection of two policemen. “We were told that it was not safe to go to the village as they would threaten us with weapons,” he said.

“We have heard of three instances where sand has been mined on a seven-acre plot owned by the temple near Thoppur — close to where the AIIMS hospital is coming up in Madurai,” the official said and added that at least four lorry loads had been taken each time. He said that they were now monitoring the plot. “But it gets difficult in the interiors. Village administrative officers are either powerless to stop the mining or they join hands with the encroachers. It is a long process of attempting to regulate,” he added.

In June 2019, Meenakshi temple officials submitted a petition to the district administration over appropriation of 14 acres of temple land in Ponmeni by an individual who used the area as farm land. In 2017 and 2018, the HR&CE department retrieved prime property from Ellis Nagar located close to Periyar bus stand — in the heart of the city — after individuals botched up revenue records and attempted to build a commercial complex in the area.

In the same month, officials who were attempting to clear encroachments in South Veli Street received suicide threats when houses were being demolished.

An official said that the department mostly dealt with cases where illegal encroachers with no lease cultivated crops and refused to pay the temple. “We have now come to a point where we do not mind them cultivating here. We only want them to pay the dues,” he said.

Missing temples

Encroachments are not restricted to lands and buildings of temples. Temples themselves are being encroached upon. In Thanjavur, anyone who passes through the narrow Thoppul Pillayar Street in the South Rampart area cannot miss a Shiva temple that has been converted into a residence. Concrete structures with balconies have come up on both sides of this temple structure, points out R.S. Narayanan of Eswari Nagar. What is more worrying is that a power connection has been provided to this house, he points out. Similarly, a temple of Lord Ganesha on the outskirts of Thanjavur has been encroached upon.

Officials said the department has mostly had to deal with cases where encroachers, without a lease, cultivate crops and refuse to pay the set contribution to the temple. “We have now come to a point where we do not mind them cultivating here. We only want them to pay the dues. Now no one knows about such lands and even if some records do exist pertaining to such lands, no one knows where the lease amount or paddy to be measured to the temple as per the lease goes,” one of them said.

Balan of Kumbakonam claimed that the efforts taken by a group of devotees had resulted in them establishing ownership of a temple land in their locality, though they were yet to get the patta in the name of the temple. “We are being made to run from pillar to post to get the patta released in the name of the temple,” he added.

Though progress is slow, the department has been successful in retrieving lands and properties.

Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple’s fit person Karumuttu T. Kannan said that they have recovered a total of ₹200 crore worth of agricultural land and commercial property in the last five years. The Joint Commissioner of the temple, N. Natarajan, said that the temple land was spread over nine districts and they had persisted with the process of area-wise recovery for several years whilst working through legal battles.

“Apart from this, encroachers also manipulate records and seek permission from other departments — particularly the district revenue department — to appropriate land and continue cultivation until a long legal battle ensues and the court verdict comes in our favour,” he said.

Retrieving property

Sustained efforts by the HR&CE Department has resulted in retrieval of several properties encroached upon by private parties or under illegal occupation across Tiruchi region in the last three years.

The encroached properties retrieved were in the form of vacant sites and buildings and shops constructed on lands belonging to the HR&CE Department in the region encompassing Tiruchi, Pudukottai, Perambalur, Karur and Ariyalur districts.

In one such operation conducted last month, HR&CE officials were able to take possession of over 3,400 sq. ft of land on which a couple of shops had been constructed in Pudukottai district. The land belonged to the Arulmigu Veeramakaliamman temple at Aranthangi.

Early this year, the officials were able to retrieve from encroachers land measuring 8.23 acres belonging to the Arulmigu Veetriruntha Perumal temple at Kaanadu in Pudukottai district. The department has retrieved vacant sites, nanjai lands and buildings constructed on properties belonging to 17 temples in Tiruchi, Pudukottai and Karur districts over the last three years, said a senior official.

The official said a majority of the encroached properties retrieved belonged to different temples in Tiruchi district. Eviction orders were issued by the HR&CE department in 2018 with respect to 71 cases. In the current year, orders for eviction of encroached properties had been issued in 250 cases in the region. In some cases, the alleged encroachers go for an appeal to the department or file a case in the court, which prolongs the retrieval exercise, said sources.

State-wide encroachments to the extent of 2,855.36 acres of land, 557.0645 grounds of sites and 250.1913 grounds of buildings belonging to Hindu religious institutions were removed and handed back to the possession of temples in the past eight years. The total market value of these assets is approximately ₹3,208.42 crore. For the year 2018-2019, 276.31 acres of cultivable lands, 33.2255 grounds of sites and 46.2380 grounds of buildings were taken back. Their total value is ₹127.42 crore, sources said.

Steps have also been taken to regularise group encroachers by providing them land on rent and handing them no objection certificates for obtaining water and power connections. This has been done for those who have been living for more than 30 years in the same location and as a group are subject to conditions, including payment of rent in instalments and donation of 10 months rent to the temple. Accordingly, 6,159 encroachers who had occupied 300.06 acres of land were regularised as tenants, an official pointed out.

(With inputs from

T. Ramakrishnan and T.K. Rohit in Chennai, V. Venkatasubramanian in Thanjavur, Sanjana Ganesh in Madurai, R. Rajaram in Tiruchi and R. Akhileish in Coimbatore)

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