All over India most of the temples have landed property and wealth. Conservatively, it is estimated that there are about 24 lakh temples in the country. The State of Tamil Nadu has the highest number followed by Maharashtra. Lakhs of acres of land has been under the ownership of these temples managed by trusts under the provision of Temple Endowment Act, framed some time back in 1863 and followed even after independence.
However, it has been observed that these temple lands have been hugely unused, encroached and even illegally transferred in the absence of strong supervision by authorities in charge of such land affairs. With change of time, the demand for land has increased in the temple areas due to growing urbanization and multiple business purposes, paving way to suspicious and surreptitious activities of land mafias, builders and estate brokers to grab the shrine land. The apathy and inaction of the State has been criticised from various quarters with a demand to restore and regain the land of the deities and make best use of the land, including for religious purpose.
The land grabbing cases are being reported from almost all States, including Odisha, which has a sizeable number of temples having land. There are about 18,000 temples in the State having land. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) in his report in 2020 on general and social sector tabled before the Assembly says that out of total 12,767 acres of land of 13 temples, about 4,500 acres of landed property of six temples were under encroachment. The Debotter land of Dhenkanal featured in top under encroachment. The inaction and failure to trace and track the land occupied by the encroachers risk the property of its ownership getting changed over a course of time or it becoming legally and administratively difficult to recover the encroached land.
Similar complaints are being reported about other temples including the Lingaraj temple land of Bhubaneswar and Shri Jagannath temple, Puri. Around 60,426 acres of land recorded in name of Lord Jagannath has been identified in 24 districts of the State. Added to this, more than 395 acres have been identified in States of West Bengal, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Bihar. These lands have been in possession of encroachers for decades. The Government of Odisha has made amendments in law to facilitate the settlement of land to eligible people.
There are hundreds of poor landless families in Puri and Khurda districts who are staying over temple land for generations without a record of rights. Their cases may be considered for a rightful settlement. During the period between 2001 and 2021, about 387 acres were settled. The Odisha Government has planned to sell 35,000 acres of land of Shri Jagannath temple and the funds will be deposited as income of the temple.
In many cases it is found that the temple priest groups, royal families, trust members and other communities related to temple land are in possession of the land and many of them also illegally have sold out by misusing their social positions and trusteeship. The Supreme Court in a judgment on September 6, 2021said a priest cannot be treated as land owner or Bhuswami and the revenue records will not have the name of the priest. Pujaris do not have ownership rights as temple property belongs to deities, the court ruled.
The Madras High Court in a judgment in 2021 while recommending strong action against the encroacher also said that every inch of temple land either under encroachment or under illegal possession of lessees even after the end of lease period without the rent must be recovered at the earliest.
Many of the State Governments such as TN, AP, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Bihar and Odisha have started the recovery of the land and the plan for utilisation of the huge unused land for development purposes. They have brought changes in the earlier laws which were only allowing farming to earn revenue for temple maintenance. These States have made a move to make necessary amendments in State laws to allow easy process of sale, transfer and development of such land for public purpose, especially for health and education purposes.
It has been suggested by land rights movement groups that the temple land may be distributed among historically deprived landless poor for housing purposes but almost all State Governments have denied diverting the temple land for other purposes. The AP Government has denied distributing the temple land among the landless poor; rather the State Government has decided to purchase private land for distribution among the landless.
The Bihar Government has started the process to dispossess the priest from illegal possession of temple land and make the land free for its use for public purpose, though the move of the Government was opposed by the priests who were made the de facto owner of the land. But the process of democratisation in temples must be encouraged by making the temple management socially inclusive of people of the same faith and the hegemonic dominance of priest groups must be neutralized with necessary legal and administrative measures.
The Constitution of India, Article 25, speaks about the right to freedom of religion, freely profess, practise, and propagate religion, subject to public order, morality and health and ensures the Government’s right to regulate and restrict any economic, financial, political or other secular activity which may be associated with religious practices such providing for social welfare and reform or allowing equal access to all classes and sections of Hindus. The broad principle is that the State laws can regulate the administration of property of religious endowment. The Government of Odisha must amend the endowment laws to further facilitate the best management of temple land and its use for public purposes.
(First published in The Daily Pioneer, 17 June 2022)