Bringing back to the pantheon what it owns 

The Department of Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments has launched a massive exercise to retrieve and restore properties belonging to temples, many of which were encroached upon. The total value of properties retrieved from May 2021 is ₹2,027.58 crore and it keeps growing.

Published - February 15, 2022 03:18 pm IST

 As part of the survey of lands, buildings, house plots, trees, tanks and irrigation channels, surveyors measuring an agriculture land, belonging to Sri Ekambaranathar Temple, at Thirumalpattu in Kancheepuram district.

 As part of the survey of lands, buildings, house plots, trees, tanks and irrigation channels, surveyors measuring an agriculture land, belonging to Sri Ekambaranathar Temple, at Thirumalpattu in Kancheepuram district.

As details of rent collection and updates of retrieval of properties keep pouring in from 44,219 temples across Tamil Nadu, the server at the headquarters of the Department of Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) at Nungambakkam, Chennai, keeps refreshing the files every few minutes.

In the last eight months, after the new government assumed office, the Department has retrieved 538.03 acres of land, 490.597 grounds of house plots, 20.1434 grounds with buildings and 46.2077 grounds classified as waterbodies. The total value of the properties retrieved from May 2021 is ₹2,027.58 crore, and it keeps increasing.

One of the first tasks that HR&CE Minister P.K. Sekarbabu undertook was to retrieve temple lands that had been encroached upon over the years. Based on a complaint, department officials retrieved 9.58 acres belonging to Sri Gowri Vinayagar Temple in Sivaganga district. The Minister, who inspected the site, told reporters that the land was encroached upon by some people close to a former Minister from the district. “People should remember the adage, ‘Sivan Sothu Kula Naasam’, meaning those who want to usurp temple properties will only perish. We will not spare anyone,” he said in a message that was loud and clear — temple lands can no longer be misused.

Retrieving encroached properties is not the only aim. steps are being taken to ensure a steady income for temples from these and existing properties. “We have called for consultants to study the lands and provide suggestions as to how they can be put to use. The properties will be used only for religious or charitable purposes. Commercial activities will not be allowed. Lands would be used for purposes, including construction of small clinics, ‘ patasalas’ or places where religious discourses can be given. At the Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore, prime land that was retrieved would be used as a facility to conduct sports day and annual day programmes of the surrounding schools. A walker’s pathway and wash rooms and rooms to keep sports equipment would be created on this land that had been exclusively used by a private trust so far without paying rent dues even after their lease ran out,” explained Commissioner J. Kumaragurubaran.

With senior officials and Chief Minister M. K. Stalin himself reviewing the functioning of the Department, rent collections are increasing. So far this Fasli year (July 1–June 30), ₹85 crore has been collected. The Department has set a target of ₹540 crore this year! “We don’t have any consolidated data of collections and donations done last year. We are also trying to collate that. And everything is being done online. Devotees are encouraged to pay donations online so that the amount is put to correct use. Soon only ‘hundial’ and ‘thattukaanikkai’ (offering on the plate, literally) for the priests would remain in cash since many devotees want to retain that feel,” said a senior official.

Even though encroachments are being removed, the Department does not demolish buildings situated on the properties since they can be put to use. “We can lease out the buildings. When an encroachment is identified, action is taken under Section 78 of the HR and CE Act. The executive officer (EO) writes to the assistant commissioner, who inspects the spot and then writes to the joint commissioner seeking further action. The joint commissioner calls the encroacher, who could have either not paid his dues for a long time or be an illegal occupant, for discussion. If the person decides to pay his dues, time is given to settle the same. Otherwise, eviction proceedings are initiated and property is taken possession of,” explained another official.

The initial focus has been on large defaulters. “Even recently, a private club in Mylapore paid up a large portion of its dues. Similarly, a shop that owned ₹51 lakh in a southern district was sealed since the owners refused to pay rent arrears. As for those who have rented small shops or houses, many of them have not been able to pay rent. The amounts were too steep in many cases, lessees complained. It was so bad that people just emptied their shops, locked up the premises and threw the keys inside temples and left overnight. The Department is soon coming out with revised norms based on guideline value and the age of the structure. We don’t want to burden small rent payers,” said an official, who did not want to be named. Of the 3,66,237 properties held by temples, only 99,174 fetch rents. The defaulters number 2,67,063, and these are being encouraged to pay up dues.

The great land survey

A massive survey of lands, buildings, house plots, trees, tanks and irrigation channels is being undertaken. The 5,85,594.99 acres is being physically verified and GPS points fixed by 56 teams. The teams, including licensed surveyors and former Revenue Department officials, are walking the length and breadth of lands and measuring them. “So far 25,014.26 acres has been verified with documents and the details provided by the temples. Along with geofencing where the latitude and longitude of the boundaries are marked, physical marking with stones and sign boards is being carried out,” explained Mr. Kumaragurubaran.

A former official of the HR &CE Department, who welcomed the move, said a separate wing for taking care of lands must be set up within the Department. “They can keep updating records and ensuring they are not encroached upon. In case of retrieval of lands, they can be part of the team. It would reduce the pressure on EOs, many of whom have developed health issues over the years. EOs are treated badly both within the temples by the staff, who cannot be transferred to other temples and also by influential locals. They are threatened with transfers, get pulled up by seniors because of anonymous letters and even posters against them. There have been instances of Ministers using too much influence, but thankfully the present incumbent does not interfere. A few years ago, a Minister stopped the eviction of a powerful person at the last moment and the EO got a dressing-down as well,” he recalled.

A retired employee explained that the recent drive coincided with the political will to get things done and many cases coming to a close in courts. “Even Section 78 proceedings are being dusted and speeded up. Despite the pressure on them, EOs are working because there are court orders to be implemented. Political will and a free hand to implement projects is keeping their spirits up. Many projects like construction of rope cars and marriage halls and restoration of temples are good efforts that need appreciation,” he said.

In several cases land donated by devotees in the name of the deities have been registered with the Revenue Department. Steps are being taken to steps to get them transferred to the HR &CE Department. “This has happened in the case of the Meenakshiamman Temple in Madurai. In Poonamallee, an amusement park has been enjoying our land and not paying rents. They have been saying the land belongs to the Revenue Department in some places and to the temple wherever it suits them. Now the matter is with the Commissioner of Land Administration, who has to decide on whom the land belongs,” explained an official.

In August 12, 2021 the Department retrieved 8.8 acres of temple land at Thadagam valley in Coimbatore district by removing illegal encroachments allegedly belonging to brick kilns. The land belonged to the Mariamman Angalamman temple in Chinna Thadagam village and had remained encroached upon for over five years. It was a non-listed temple until 2019, when the HR&CE Department formally took over its maintenance, after which the officials sent notices to the encroachers. In the meantime, the encroachers had erected two units that were used to dry the bricks on temple land, the officials said.

In Erode district, the Department had retrieved over 10 acres of temple land worth ₹13 crore in 2021. Officials said 10.23 acres worth ₹1.90 crore belonging to the Patlur Kariyakaliamman Thirukovil in Anthiyur taluk was retrieved in September, 2021. Also, over 6,000 sq. ft. land worth ₹12 crore belonging to the Sarvalingamoorty and Adinarayana Perumal Thirukovil at Vadamugam Vellode in Perundurai taluk was retrieved in November, 2021.

On the way to Palani, a devotee had donated 10 acres valued at ₹10 crore to provide water to devotees. “However, someone had changed the name on the title deed of the property, which we have now changed back to the name of the endowment and brought it under the Palaniandavar temple so that it remains safe,” said an official. Three acres of cultivable land worth ₹2 crore belonging to Sri Brahmasirakandeeswarar temple, Kandiyur near Thanjavur , and around 2 acres at Kandiyur which belonged to Sri Vedapureeswarar temple, Thiruvedikudi, was taken back from the tenants who failed to honour the lease agreements.

In several cases the demolition of temples has been a bone of contention among the devout. Temples, churches and mosques have been removed from waterbodies and government lands. The government had in 2019 identified around 3,000 places of worship that had encroached on public property and the Madras High Court said in 2019, “An encroachment is an encroachment. Encroachment can never be approved or allowed. Even the deity, as a legal person, cannot commit an act of encroachment. If a deity in a temple commits an act of encroachment, that is to be dealt with in accordance with law and just because it is a deity, the rule of law cannot be diluted. This being the legal principle, this court is of the opinion that India being a democratic, socialist and secular country, all are bound to follow the rule of law and respect the law for an orderly society.”

During the recent monsoon, the Revenue Department, along with the police, demolished several places of worship that had encroached upon public spaces. Devotees, including T. R. Ramesh of Temple Worshippers Society, called for relocation of the structures, which was possible. “The government of Tamil Nadu has a policy to relocate and rehabilitate temples and other places of worship. That should be implemented,” he added.

Religious structures, including temples, have been removed for road widening too. As a result, various agencies have had to fell trees and remove roadside temples. In many stretches leading to Palani from Dindigul and other towns, the devotees who undertake ‘padha yatra’ (walk to the temple) used to break coconuts to the deities. Recently, the police had to intervene and pacify members of the public, when Revenue Department officials removed temples dedicated to Lord Vinayaka situated on the wayside, a police officer in Dindigul district said.

Ramprakash, an activist in Dindigul, said NHAI officials were instructed to plant five saplings for every tree felled for road expansion by the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court. However, “the officials failed to respond to queries raised by us,” he claimed, alleging that the officials were also partial in demolishing the illegal structures. Be it a temple, or a church or a mosque, they should be removed if they were built on unauthorised land, he said.

(With inputs from R. Akileish in Coimbatore, S.P. Saravanan in Erode, Vignesh Vijayakumar in Salem and V. Venkatasubramanian in Thanjavur.)

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