Madras High Court Calls Tamil Nadu Government Out Over Grand Plans To Give Away Temple Lands To Squatters
Last weekend, the Madras High Court stayed the Tamil Nadu government’s order of 30 August this year to regularise “non-objectionable encroachments” by those who had encroached temple lands in the state.
Ruling on a miscellaneous petition filed by Temple Worshippers Society president and advocate T R Ramesh to stay the state government order, a High Court bench of justices M Sathyanarayanan and M Seshasayee said that until details of encroachment of temple lands were collected, the government order could not be implemented.
Apart from the petition, Ramesh has also filed a writ petition challenging the 30 August order. Besides, another person, A Radhakrishnan of Salem, has also moved the court against the order to give away ownership of temple lands worth hundreds of crores of rupees to squatters.
The judges said that attempts to regularise encroachment of temple lands and giving permission to such acts would deprive temples of their properties.
Any act that caused loss of temple properties for purposes of those intended for the benefit or need of the concerned temple was against the provisions of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HRCE) Act, the two-judge bench said.
The High Court sought more details of temple lands in the state by 20 January 2020.
Asking the state government to file a report on the number of temples administered by the HRCE Department, the High Court called for details on lands owned by the temples with their survey numbers, details of encroachments on temple lands, action taken against the squatters and action taken against officials who failed to act against the encroachers.
The judges admitted the writ petitions challenging the Tamil Nadu government order, and they will be heard on 20 January 2020.
In particular, the court stayed the second part of the 30 August government order on regularising encroachment of temple lands. The order cannot be implemented until a biometric evaluation of all temple lands across the state was undertaken and completed, the jugdes ordered.
On 18 November, while taking up the petitions for hearing, the judges made no effort to hide their disappointment over the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government’s order on temple lands.
One of the major concerns raised by the judges, while hearing the petition to stay the order, was how the state government would implement it without having any details on the encroachments of the 44,000-odd temple lands in Tamil Nadu.
The temples are under the administration of HRCE Department, which itself is under scrutiny for the way it has been managing the temples.
A petition seeking to end the HRCE Department’s control of temples, filed in 2012 by late Swami Dayanand Saraswati, is being heard by the Supreme Court currently.
Hearing the petitions against the 30 August state government order, the judges wondered if the AIADMK government would fix a price for all the temple lands that it plans to acquire before handing them over to the encroachers — as per the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.
The act lays down clear guidelines, procedures and rules for providing compensation, rehabilitation, and resettlement for government-acquired lands.
The judges also pulled up the state government asking what sort of signal such an order was sending to the squatters on temple lands.
However, the state government attempted to impress the court by saying that the allocation would be done on a case-by-case basis. It said the order was aimed at providing lands for “eligible” poor families that were residing on temple lands.
The Madras High Court’s Madurai Bench had declared in June last year that not even an inch of temple land or property would be allowed to be encroached. It was hearing a batch of petitions seeking the removal of encroachment of temple lands in Ramanathapuram district.
The Madras High Court has issued a couple of directives previously to the HRCE Department to tone up its administration of temples. However, the department has been dragging its feet.
In October last year, the High Court asked the HRCE Department to furnish details of those lands that are currently missing from documents and records. It gave the state government six months' time to retrieve these lands.
The state government got back to the High Court saying that it had recovered hardly 1,000 grounds and some 3,000 square feet of land.
According to T R Jawahar, News Today Editor, temples in Tamil Nadu own close to six lakh acres and three lakh square feet of property. An incalculable part of these lands has been grabbed, and the temples are left with just the land within their walls.
In the last five years, at least 50,000 acres have been swallowed by encroachers. Besides their lands and properties, temples in Tamil Nadu have also been stripped of their valuable idols.
The Madras High Court has now taken over the supervision of idol theft and smuggling cases in the state. The state government and the HRCE Department, in particular, are playing truant with the High Court orders.
The grievance of temple devotees and worshippers is that ever since the Dravidian parties — Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and AIADMK — came to power, temples have been targeted for their loot. Temples in Tamil Nadu have the capacity to earn at least Rs 7,000 crore.
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