Gold-rich temples weigh monetisation, but ‘melting’ a dampener
New Delhi : As the government seeks to monetise gold worth an estimated USD one trillion lying idle, all eyes are on their biggest repositories — the temples — but many of them fear that ‘melting’ of the ornaments donated by devotees may hurt religious sentiments.
Officials at a number of rich and famous temples across the country said they may not be able to immediately participate in the scheme, while a few others said the scheme was worth exploring but a final decision was yet to be taken.
For some temples, including Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Kerala and the Shirdi Sai Baba temple in Maharashtra, the ongoing court cases are coming in the way.
The interest remains lukewarm among major temples in Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana and Rajasthan among other states, while a few in Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Gujarat have shown initial interest.
However, most of them are concerned about issues like loss of value in the melting process and the religious sentiments of the devotees who donate gold ornaments in the name of the deities of the respective temples.
The Gold Monetisation Scheme, an ambitious initiative launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month, aims to bring an estimated 22,000 tonnes of gold lying idle with households, religious institutions and others into the financial system in return for a regular interest payout and the market-linked appreciation value.
The gold can be deposited even in the jewellery form, but it gets melted and the value is determined after testing its purity. The depositor can choose an option to get back the gold at a later date in the equivalent of ‘995 fineness gold or Indian rupees’ as they desire, but not in the same form.
Among various temples in Gujarat, the famous Ambaji temple has ruled out depositing its gold for the scheme at present, while Somnath temple has prepared a proposal in this regard and a final decision would be taken by its trustees.
Dwarkadhish temple in Devbhumi Dwarka is yet to take a call, but the chairman of the temple trust committee H K Patel said the scheme was worth giving a thought.
The famous Siddhivinayak Temple in Mumbai also appears interested in exploring the scheme as it is looking at options to utilise its 160 kg of gold reserves, out of which about 10 kg is already deposited with a bank.
The high-level Investment Committee of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), which manages the world’s richest Hindu temple of Sri Venkateswara Swamy, will also meet soon to discuss the issue of depositing its gold under this scheme.
Kanakadurgamma Temple in Vijayawada, the second richest temple in Andhra Pradesh, however has no plans to participate in this scheme, while neighbouring Telangana government has not taken any decision as yet on participating in the Scheme.
The Devaswom Boards controlling most of the temples in Kerala are showing mostly lukewarm response to the central government’s scheme, except for the Guruvayour Devaswom that manages the famous Sree Krishna Temple at Guruvaoyur.
State Minister for Devaswom V S Sivakumar said the Devaswom boards are autonomous bodies and the government cannot give any direction on matters like these.
“It is for the respective Devaswom Boards to take a decision,” he said.
In case of the Travancore and Cochin devaswom boards, any decision on such matters would need to be ratified by the Kerala High Court, which is the audit and expenditure controller of these Boards.
Besides, the gold in custody of most of these temples are in the form of small jewellery items and the Devaswom boards fear that they would have to bear a loss as the jewellery would be melted after being deposited under the scheme.
Officials said the boards also fear that any loss of weight after melting would unnecessarily invite allegations of irregularities and corruption.
“So, boards have not shown much interest in the scheme,” a senior official in the state government said.
Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) President Prayar Gopalakrishnan, who took charge of the office last month, said that he was yet to study the details of the scheme.
The famous Lord Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala, visited by millions every year, is among the several shrines under TDB.
Cochin Devaswom Board (CDB) member E A Rajan said it does not have surplus gold that could be deposited under the scheme.
“Gold in the temples are used to attire the idols. They are in jewellery form,” he said.
The famous Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple’s Executive Officer K N Sateesh said all temple affairs were under the scrutiny of the Supreme Court.
“We cannot say anything on these matters now,” he said while adding that everything will depend on the court decision.
Guruvayour Devaswom, which manages the famous and one of the riches temples Sree Krishna shrine at Guruvayour, said there was no problem in participating in the scheme but they did not have any excess gold to deposit at present.
“There is no problem for us to deposit in the scheme,” Mallessery Parameswaran Namboothirpad, Member (Administrative) of the Managing Committee, said.
Nearly 500 kg gold was already deposited under a scheme with State Bank of India, he said, while adding that the temple receives an average of three kg of gold every month.
“We are ready to deposit in the scheme. But at present we do not have any surplus,” he added.
Looking to give a push to the scheme, the All India Gems and Jewellery Trade Federation is working on suggestions to be submitted to the central government.
“We have met the finance ministry officials and will soon submit our suggestions in which we will ask the government to introduce a simple and practical process for jewellers to act as collection centers.
“The jewellers as of now are facing hardship to meet the conditions set by the government,” former chairman of All India Gems and Jewellery Trade Federation Bachhraj Bamalwa said.
“Only targeting temples will not help much in generating the flow of gold to the scheme. Retail public participation is needed and for that the process has to be made flexible and more practical,” he said.
State-run MMTC’s Chairman and Managing Director Ved Prakash said discussions are continuing with the banks, verification centres and refiners.
“Meanwhile, institutional gold has started coming like Tirupati has indicated 1.5 tonne, Shirdi 500 kgs. We have started dialogue with smaller temples of Himachal Pradesh and Haryana and gradually to temple trusts of other states,” he added.
Among temples in West Bengal, Dakshineswar Kali Temple’s trustee and secretary Kushal Chowdhury welcomed the scheme saying it is a very good idea.
“We are interested in participating in it. What is the point of leaving the gold lying idle in our vaults? It is better if it is used for welfare of the nation,” he said without divulging quantity of gold the temple holds.
However, the temple committee of Tarapith is yet to give any thought to the scheme, a senior official said. The Kalighat temple officials were not available for comments.
In Karnataka, Muzrai Minister Manohar Tahsildar said the state government has not yet taken any decision as yet on the gold monetisation scheme floated by the central government as it is still weighing the pros and cons of it.
“We have to take a decision on the scheme. We are weighing the pros and cons of implementing the scheme under which temples can deposit their gold with banks,” Muzrai said.
The Religious and Charitable Endowments (Muzrai) Commissioner had earlier written to the Principal Secretary of Revenue explaining the advantages and disadvantages of implementing the scheme.
Tahsildar, however, said any discussion was yet to take place on the letter as it has just been a month that he has taken charge as Muzrai minister.
The letter raised concerns of hurting religious sentiments of the people in melting of gold for depositing with banks. It also raised security concerns in transporting these idols from temples to melting units and the high costs involved in doing so. However, it also explained the benefits.
In Rajasthan too, the response from the management of famous temples was mostly lukewarm, while there has been no major initiative at the government level so far.
“We will discuss the scheme once we get detailed guidelines from the Centre and will look that how temple boards and trusts can be encouraged to participate in the scheme,” state’s Devsthan Department Minister Otaram Devasi said.
Chief Executive Officer of Nathdwara Temple Board in Rajsamand district, Jagdish Chandra Heda, said the ornaments and other items offered to the temple are used on rotation basis so there is no point in depositing them in bank.
“The gold items offered to ‘Thakurji’ are not idle and are generally used. So, the scheme is not a fit programme for Nathdwara temple,” Heda said.
Priest of Govind Devji temple in Jaipur, Manas Goswami, said the valuable offerings are returned to the devotee after presenting it to ‘Thakurji’.
President of Shri Shyam Mandir Committee, which manages Khatushyamji temple in Sikar, Mohan Das said the devotees offer various items to ‘Baba Shyam’ but the volume of gold items was not very high and therefore the committee has no interest in this scheme.
The Sai Baba temple in Shirdi, Maharashtra, which has 384 kg of gold reserves, will have to go by the decision of the Bombay High Court on participating in this scheme.
A highly placed source in the temple Trust said the caretakers of the temple would want to invest in the scheme but any decision can be taken only after the court says so.
Earlier, Bombay High Court had barred the temple trust from melting the gold, which is a prerequisite in the Gold Monetisation Scheme.
“Currently, we have 384 kg of gold and 4,000 kg of silver reserves, apart from different fixed deposits in nationalised banks worth Rs 1,483 crore. But our main concern is to make proper use of gold so that we can multiply our humanitarian services with additional income garnered through the interest of the gold,” the official said.
The Trust, which has an annual turnover of around Rs 350 crore, feels that the interest income from the scheme can be used for the temple-run hospitals and to provide free meals to the devotees.
However, the Siddhivinayak temple in Mumbai is already exploring the idea.
“We have 160kg of gold in our reserves right now, out of which 10 kg is already deposited with the State Bank of India at an annual interest of 1 per cent. We are now contemplating proper utilisation of these gold ornaments, for which no bidder came forward,” said Narendra Rane, Chairman of Siddhivinayak temple Trust.