HC reserves verdict on plan to purchase temple lands under encroachment

The Madras High Court on Monday reserved its judgment on a plea for staying the operation of a Government Order issued on August 30 for purchasing unwanted temple lands from the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HRCE) Department and hand them over to poor landless encroachers who were in occupation of those properties for long.

Justices M. Sathyanarayanan and N. Seshasayee deferred their verdict after wondering how the government could have issued such a G.O. without even carrying out a massive enumeration exercise with respect to the extent of lands owned by around 38,000 temples under the control of HR and CE department and the extent of land that was under encroachment.

Even otherwise, the judges questioned the authority of the HR and CE department to decide which of the temple land could be sold to the government and which could not be when all temple lands were actually private properties that had been given away by their owners for the benefit of temples and now belong to the deities of individual temples concerned.

The HR and CE department was created to protect the temple lands, not to sell them away, the judges said. They also asked how the officials of the department could have allowed encroachments at the first place when they as trustees of the properties were supposed to maintain them well, derive income and use the money for the welfare of the temples.

When the judges wanted to know whether the compensation to the temple lands would be paid as per the provisions of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act of 2013, Government Pleader V. Jayaprakash Narayanan and Special Government Pleader M. Maharaja replied in the negative.

They told the court that the compensation would be paid as per a Government Order issued on November 2, 2018.

However, pointing out that the G.O. referred by them appeared to be the one related to purchase of lands for establishing industries, the judges doubted whether it would provide for compensating the temples adequately for the valuable lands.

Not convinced with GP’s assertion that the government order had been issued purely in the interest of the landless poor, Justice Sathyanarayanan asked what was the reason for the government to have suddenly developed a concern for the poor in the State and wanted to know whether there was any specific reason behind the timing of the GO.

A counter affidavit filed in the court on behalf of the Revenue Secretary stated that Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam in his budget speech for the year 2018-19 had promised to provide decent housing to the poor residing in non objectionable government lands and also to acquire private lands for issuance of free house site pattas to the poor.

Subsequently, since many representations were received from those who had been in occupation of temple lands for several years, a decision was taken to consider the issue on a case by case basis and purchase unwanted temple lands after due clearance from the HR and CE department, so that they could be handed over the landless poor.

Pointing out that the HR and CE officials were also government servants, the judges wondered whether they would ever be allowed to act independently when it came to taking a decision on accepting or refusing a plea for selling away temple lands to the government.

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