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2 June, 2020 07:44:53 PM / LAST MODIFIED: 2 June, 2020 07:46:54 PM


A massive controversy has erupted on the issue with some saying that the country is passing through an “emergency like situation” and hence it is legitimate that the wealth lying in temples be put to good use
Kumkum Chadha

Whose gold is it anyway? This seems to be the question that has led to a controversy in India even while coronavirus seems to be tightening its grip the world over. India is no exception even though it has, by most accounts, fared well in fighting the virus. 
Some three months and four lockdowns down the line, interest seems to be shifting from the deadly virus to the migrant workers and the economy which critics say is “on a ventilator”. 
There is a war of words between the Congress and the ruling BJP about migrant workers with Congress actually offering buses to take the poor home. Congress’ Priyanka Gandhi is leading from the front even while the state Government of Uttar Pradesh is alleging that many of the “buses” offered by the Congress are registered as 2-wheelers and autos apart from several goods carriers. 
Buses apart, there is a storm brewing about gold too.
The Congress has urged the Centre to appropriate all the gold lying with religious trusts in the country which would help supplement funds to fight Covid-19. 

 A massive controversy has erupted on the issue with some saying that the country is passing through an “emergency like situation” and hence it is legitimate that the wealth lying in temples be put to good use. 
Of course, others have objected to the move of appropriating gold which has been donated for religious purposes and are objects of worship and reverence. It is, they argue, a question of faith of devotees in which the government has no role to play. 
From the legal standpoint, the Constitution and specific laws protect the autonomy of religious trusts and they cannot be tampered with for what is being described as a “greater good” or “national interest”. The consent of the trusts is a must and the Government cannot appropriate the gold because appropriation is not voluntary. Some have gone as far as calling appropriation as “state sponsored loot”. 
In the eye of a storm is Congress leader and former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan. It was he who first suggested that the government should borrow gold lying with religious trusts in the country in the wake of financial crunch amid Covid-19.
Chavan had tweeted, “Government must immediately appropriate all the gold lying with all the religious trusts in the country, worth at least $1trillion, according to the #WorldGoldCouncil. The gold can be borrowed through gold bonds at a low-interest rate. This is an emergency.” He said that it can be borrowed at the interest rate of 1-2% in the form of a loan.

Affirming that the gold reserve lying with the religious bodies is worth more than 76 lakh crore rupees Chavan said: “If it is borrowed from these trusts at a nominal interest rate, the money can be generously spent on the lower middle and poor class to increase their spending capacity.”
The suggestion, however sane, was volatile: enough to kick up a storm. Swords were immediately out with priests, seers and the ruling party out rightly rejecting Chavan’s concept. 
Leading the charge, a BJP leader from Chavan’s home state Maharashtra said: “If the Congress is so concerned about the financial condition of the country, it should first bring out the money usurped by the Congress leaders from scams during their rule,” he said.

Not the one to give in Chavan said that he was merely suggesting something that the BJP had itself introduced in its earlier tenure. The idea, said Chavan, was not a new one because the previous BJP government had actually introduced the gold monetisation schemes. “The Vajpayee government in 1999 introduced the gold deposit scheme (GDS) as an aftermath of economic sanctions after May 1998 Pokhran Atomic tests. The scheme was targeted at individuals and institutions asking them to deposit gold in the banks. On November 5, 2015, PM Narendra Modi’s government modified the GDS and introduced the gold monetisation scheme which still exists. According to a finance ministry report, 20,547 kg of gold has been mobilised by 2,952 entities between November 2015 and January 2020 under the scheme. Two temples from Maharashtra have deposited their gold with 11 banks,” he said.

“In the first year of this scheme, 8 temples took part as they deposited gold in different banks. The Shirdi Sansthan also took part in it. This information is provided by the Finance Minister in the Lok Sabha. The government can use gold during the time of crisis,” Chavan said adding: "Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then finance minister Arun Jaitley on November 5, 2015 introduced modified Gold Monetisation Scheme which till January end this year has mobilised 20,547 kg of precious yellow metal," he added.

"Incidentally both the prime ministers who introduced the gold monetisation scheme belong to the BJP," said the former Maharashtra chief minister. 
The central government’s launched Gold Monetisation Scheme was one attempt to get these hoards and idle gold out and put them to productive use. Under it, jewellery and other articles have to be melted to verify the purity and sent to refineries for making bars even at the risk of the antique value being lost. 

Party politics took a communal turn when Congress was blamed for targeting only Hindu trusts and leaving out Churches and Mosques. 
The minorities, it may be pointed out, are a vote bank of the Congress while the BJP gets its strength from the Hindus, a majority community in India.
According to right wing Hindu Janjagruti Samiti, the Congress has always pursued anti-Hindu policies:  “The churches in the country own most of the land after the defence and railway ministries. Wakf Board owns nearly 7 lakh acres of land. Will the Congress leaders demand to take over their lands,” a spokesperson sought to know. Congress baiters have accused it of playing vote-bank politics. 
Irrespective, it is interesting to focus on how rich are India’s temples? The figures are mind boggling.
For starters, the Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala, among the country’s oldest, has several secret cellars of jewellery.  During a court battle in 2011 over the riches in this 16th-century institution, a Supreme Court-approved team discovered $22 billion worth, from around 1,300 tonnes of gold jewellery at the then prevailing price. The richest temple in the country, it possesses wealth of around 20 billion dollars according to available estimates. The estimated worth of the gold idol is 500 crores in Indian rupees. The gold necklace that adorns the deity is about 18 feet long while the assets of the temple are estimated to be 90,000 crores including gold, gold idols, antique silver, emeralds, diamonds and brass. This collection also includes two golden coconut shells that are studded with precious stones.

Unconfirmed figures put Sri Venkateshwara Temple in Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh getting donations worth a minimum of 100 kg of gold every month. Tirupati temple gets an annual donation of Rs 650 crore, and alone makes 11 million dollars from selling laddus as prasad. The presiding deity of the temple, Lord Venkateshwara is clad with 1000kgs of Gold.
Its total of gold ornament and jewellery holdings are estimated at $11 billion or 250-300 tonnes. According to the temple's website, Tirupati got 3,200 kg silver and 2.4 kg of diamonds in just one year. 

Some years ago, a state minister donated a crown of gold and diamonds worth Rs 45 crore to the temple deity. 

The Vaishno Devi temple in Jammu has over a ton of gold. In 2014, it was believed to have received as much as 193.5 kg of gold in five years, part of which was reportedly fake.  
The Siddhivinayak Temple, Mumbaihas over 160 kg of goldwith thedome over the main shrine of Ganesha laden with 4 kg of pure goldwhile the Saibaba Temple, Shirdi,also in  Maharashtra,has  376 kg gold according to available figures. The Shirdi Sai Baba shrine in Mumbai has gold and silver worth Rs 32 crore and coins worth more than Rs 6 lakh. The annual donation of the temple is around Rs 360 crore.
The Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political constituency Varanasi receives around 5 crore rupees as annual donation. Of its three domes, two are gold plated. 
At a conservative estimate, the Shree Krishna temple Guruvayur in Kerala has at least two tonnes of gold, with an average annual offering by the devotees to be around 15 kg of gold.
In the Jagannath Temple, Puri in the state of Odisha, during one ritual alone,the deities are adorned with gold jewellery weighing 208 kg. 

The Golden Temple in Amritsar, revered by Sikhs has a canopy made of gold and the altar on which the holy book of Guru Granth Sahib is placed is studded with precious stones.
While it is logical to put this gold to good use for the welfare of the people, the conservatives would have none of it on grounds that touching god’s gold is nothing short of sacrilege. Therefore even if logic favours the Congress, the BJP will hear none of it.

The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist and a columnist of The Independent.


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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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