Is cash-strapped Andhra Pradesh eyeing Tirumala’s surplus funds?


July 15, 2016

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu caused some consternation amongst God-fearing bureaucrats in May 2016 at a Collectors' Conference in Vijayawada, when he said that "temple funds could be utilized in the same manner as the Christian missionaries use the church funds for health, education and anti-poverty programs."

July 15, 2016

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu caused some consternation amongst God-fearing bureaucrats in May 2016 at a Collectors' Conference in Vijayawada, when he said that "temple funds could be utilized in the same manner as the Christian missionaries use the church funds for health, education and anti-poverty programs."

Naidu's off-the-cuff remarks caught several bureaucrats unawares. Many senior IAS men were aware of the attempts already made in the past by power lobbies to use temple funds which they termed as growing faster and higher than the state's growth rates. "Not for temples in Andhra Pradesh," joked Naidu. "A 27 percent increase over last year in collections at shrines is natural here. People are committing sins and to get rid of them, they are going to temples and offering money," he said.

Naidu, in a light vein also lamented that thanks to the vow of abstinence taken by devotees before visiting Sabarimala (in Kerala), alcohol revenues too had come down in the state. "More people are taking Ayyapa Swamy 'deeksha' and abstaining from liquor consumption for 40 days. To that extent our liquor sales are going down," he laughed.

His 'vision of intention' expressed in the Collectors' Conference has been acted upon in the recent months when the Chittoor district collectorate asked the TTD – Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams – the custodian of Balaji temple at Tirumala, to take the lead in funding several populist programs of the government, like the 'Neeru-Chettu' (water-trees) project. Though it was vouched that temple funds were not utilised under the 'Haritha' project, the TTD shortlisted 100 tanks for development, out of the 139 present in the extended limits of Tirupati Urban Development Authority (TUDA).

High voltage publicity was unleashed during the program that the TTD aimed to address the water bodies dotting the highways leading to the temple city in an effort to improve the city's aesthetics and also offer respite to the pilgrims. "Every government is exploiting TTD funds for its populist programs and the present government depends more on TTD for urban infrastructure development in Tirupati," said S Gopal Rao, a former sub judge and a resident of Tirupati.

In undivided Andhra Pradesh, temple lands totalled 4.2 lakh acres owned by temples in Vishakhapatnam, Kakinada, Guntur, Kurnool, Warangal, and Hyderabad. Of these, 60,843 acres were occupied illegally by politicians and also land grabbers. According to a report, the TTD, in 1985 itself, owned around 3.4 lakh acres.

However, the Endowment Minister P Manikyala Rao, informed Assembly in the last budget session in February, that the market value of properties owned by TTD was Rs 9,800 crores of which only 4,657.51 acres of land remained in undivided AP and another 125.75 acres in Nepal, Delhi, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Puducherry, Haryana and Odisha. "There are three IAS and one IPS officer, a separate law and a property cell in TTD but yet the TTD officials are failing to protect its properties," said Peddireddygari Ramachandra Reddy, a former Congress minister and sitting Punganur MLA who belongs to the opposition YSR Congress party.

In July 2015, the Andhra government had already issued a diktat to the TTD to fund the establishment costs – salaries of priests of all 12,000 temples – in the 13 districts of bifurcated AP. TTD has been asked to cough up Rs 100 crores to the Rs 250 crores corpus fund created in the endowment department. An account has been separately created for this purpose in Andhra Bank, former Chief Secretary IYR Krishna Rao, and a former senior official of TTD, had clarified last year.

In the latter half of June this year, the AP government had also issued another diktat – that it had plans to sell off all idle properties of temples to raise funds for development activities including urban and rural infrastructure. As part of the same exercise, the temple lands belonging to AP in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu are being sold off.

What is Tirumala Temple worth?

The TTD has reported that it clocked a hundi collection of nearly Rs 1.5 to Rs 2 crore every day along with offerings of a minimum of 2 kilograms of gold ornaments. The temple sees footfalls of one lakh devotees every day and is also adorned with at least 65-70 kilograms of gold ornaments. A single crown studded with diamonds and rubies weighs about 30 kilograms and is worth many crores. In fact, there are a dozen similar crowns, including the one donated by the iron ore mafia king and former Karnataka BJP minister Gali Janardhan Reddy. The dome of the 1900 year old Srivari Temple is studded with gold plates donated by Vijayanagara King Sri Krishnadevaraya.

Lord Balaji also has cash deposits worth Rs 10,000 crore and his annual budget for 2016-17 was Rs 2678 crore, a hike of 27 percent over last year, with a record collection from devotees estimated at Rs 1010 crores this year. The temple is estimated to earn Rs 150 crore from the sale of tonsured hair alone, which has become a popular brand in France and UK as Tirupati hair, coveted for the long, shining tresses. TTD estimates Rs 778.93 crore as interest on investments and a salary bill of Rs 500 crore. It also plans to spend Rs 120 crore for propagation of Hindu religion. It earns Rs 175 crore from the sale of Laddu Prasadam – three lakh laddus are made and sold every day. It spent Rs 88 crore on education and Rs 62 crore on hospitals.

Up until now, TTD has deposited 4.3 tonnes of gold in three public sector banks under the Gold Deposit Scheme. The scheme, launched in 1999, will be replaced by the Gold Monetization Scheme. But deposits outstanding in the old scheme will be allowed to continue. A majority of the 4.3 tonnes deposited by TTD is held by State Bank of India, an official said.

Of the 750 tonnes of gold reserves in India, TTD alone has 200-300 tonnes and rings in a weekly collection of 10 kilograms of gold, say TTD officials. Temple gold is preserved, catalogued and maintained under heavy guard at 'Bokkasam' (safety vault) and a separate wing is in charge of the 'Thiruvabharanams' (holy jewels).

Several old-timers in TTD say that attempts by successive governments to utilize its vast funds have already taken place. In spite of the constitutional guarantees and the AP Endowment and Charities Act, many governments since 1984 have been trying to use TTD's funds for the needs of the state. "It is no more a religious or spiritual organization but a mini-government run by a handful of IAS and IPS officers and a governing body where everyone is nominated by the government and the ruling party in power," said a former TTD member and current YSRCP MLA from Chandragiri, Chevireddy Bhaskar Reddy.

Cash-Strapped AP Government?

Since the bifurcation, Andhra Pradesh has been a cash-strapped state. It is entitled to Rs 13,000 crore as a legacy of bifurcation and loss of revenue from Hyderabad, which accounted for over 40 percent of the overall earning of the combined state. All that the Centre has so far granted is just Rs 2803 crore, merely a drop in ocean.

But the state growth rate, according to the government, is on the rise notwithstanding the lack of capital and other hurdles in administration. In 2015-16, AP's own tax revenue had gone up from Rs 29,857 crore to Rs 44,423 crore. However, non-tax revenue and regular annual flow from the Centre were at Rs 5,341 crore and Rs 40,104 crore respectively in the same period.

State Finance Secretary PV Ramesh says that the state has made an exemplary 49 percent jump in own tax revenue. "But immediate support from the Centre is crucial in view of the huge development agenda and expenditure line-up for urban infrastructure and Amaravati capital," he said.

As a result, the AP government under Chandrababu Naidu has chosen the path of Swiss Challenge and also land grants to developers from Singapore, Malaysia and China in the territory of new capital city of Amaravati. With a weak opposition in the form of the YSRCP, the ruling Telugu Desam Party has a free hand to exploit all the available resources of the state, including that of the TTD.

Bureaucrats and TDP leaders though say that nothing was being done to hurt the sentiments of devotees and no transfer of funds took place from the TTD account to that of the government treasury. Way back in 1983, when TDP founder NT Rama Rao was Chief Minister, such an attempt was indeed made. The state government had directed TTD to keep its fixed deposits in the AP government treasury instead of in commercial banks. Rama Rao offered to pay the TTD the same rate of interest as commercial banks for every paisa kept in the state account.

NTR's move was stalled by the TTD board which went on appeal to the AP High Court and got a stay amidst a furious public and political uproar. Then BJP MLA, now Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Venkaiah Naidu had slammed the NTR government stating that it was "an encroachment on the affairs of a Hindu religious endowment". Former Janata Party legislator and later UPA minister S Jaipal Reddy had cautioned that the consequences would be bad and said "a Hindu backlash can be worse than minority communalism". NTR dropped the move after public furore.

Although the state government and the ruling party profess innocence, insiders in the TTD and the Endowment Department contend that the writing is on the wall. They say that in the winter session of Assembly a definite move could be made to legalise the process which has already begun in TTD. TTD is likely to be asked to fund all needs of the Tirupati Municipality and also that of Chittoor district programs. "What has already begun in implementation of the populist schemes will be legalised soon," said YSRC legislator Peddireddy Ramachandra Reddy.

TDP leaders though argue that there is nothing wrong in using TTD funds for public welfare activities like developing urban and rural infrastructure for education, healthcare and toilets. They point out that during the Congress regime of YS Rajasekhar Reddy, the government had made TTD conduct Kalyanamastu (weddings of BPL families of SC/ST and BCs). In six functions of Kalyanamastu conducted at Rs 4.86 crores for each, nearly 36,000 weddings were performed by the TTD over all 23 districts of united Andhra Pradesh. After YSR's death the program was abandoned by the TTD on ground of lack of 'transparency and accountability'.

"Our government is not after funds of Lord Venkateswara temple. We will only ask TTD to invest in government programs and schemes just like other concerns or private individuals," said AP Forest Minister Bojjala Gopalakrishna Reddy. Though there is no clear idea of how the Lord's funds will be utilised by the cash-strapped AP government, one thing is certain. Money managers and financial experts are coming up with many devious designs to put the huge contributions made by devotees of Balaji in the form of gold and cash to fulfill the populist poll promises of the ruling parties, whoever they may be.

Courtesy: Firstpost