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How should ‘god step in?’

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No matter how morally correct Mr. Mishra’s arguments are, they lack substance on the rational front.

An article written by Shantanu Mishra titled ‘Time for God to Step in’ was published 13th of May on this platform. Though the idea behind writing the article could not be challenged because it is true that temples hold enormous wealth in India and in times of crisis they should come to the rescue of the aggrieved. However, it left many concerns unaddressed and just seemed like Abhinav’s letter to PM with some additional data on temples’ wealth and dropping revenue collection. No matter how morally correct the argument is, it failed to look at very important aspects of the argument.

Mr. Mishra seems so obsessed with the idea to utilize wealth of temples for welfare measures; he doesn’t mention a single method through which it should be done. He talks about redistribution of wealth in a sense that wealth should be used to ameliorate the conditions of the poor by making donations but there is no substance in the argument as he doesn’t mention how this could be done. Should it be in the form of donations to the PMCares fund, the state relief fund, direct cash transfers to the poor or in the form of essentials and not cash? These questions are really important especially when there is an academic debate over companies donating to PM’s fund qualify for CSR exemption but  not for donating to state’s relief fund. At present, we are witnessing increased centralization and erosion of federalism, so any donation made to the relief funds either of states’ or centre’s is bound to generate political controversy.

More importantly, he totally ignores the fact that most of the wealth with temples is in the form of gold and property and unless there is a way one can sell property and gold in current times without seriously affecting the economy in the long run, I don’t think ‘god can step in with all of his wealth.’ Also glaring is the fact that the writer studying in topmost law school of the country doesn’t even mention, let alone consider, Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments Act, 1997 and other legal complexities involved in the process. Temples in India are indirectly controlled by government and if it were possible, there was no reason for government to not utilize the wealth.

Apart from property and gold, cash reserves won’t help much as many temples are struggling to pay wages to their employees because of lockdown. The world’s richest Hindu temple management body, Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD), though having billions of worth of assets, has run out of cash. Temples in Tamil Nadu were asked to contribute to Covid-19 relief fund and it ended up generating a political storm. It showed that temple funds cannot be used as easily. Similar flaks were witnessed in Kerala where BJP, despite the situation of crisis we are in, alleged donation to CM’s Distress Relief Fund being in violation of Guruvayur Devaswom Act. Keeping the skepticism on utilization of the funds aside, any donation made to such funds takes a lot of time to reach the actual beneficiaries. So, is there anything temples can do?

DEPLOY THE POWER OF RELIGION

I will answer this question but before that I think the question needs to be corrected to what can ‘religious institutions’ do in these tough times? India is a society deeply connected with religion. Any religious instruction is sacrament and is whole heartedly followed. In my opinion, religious institutions can do what punitive measures of police cannot. The institutions should ask people not to gather for religious festivities, ask them to be humane towards poor people, ask them to provide food to the needy, etc. as religious instructions carry a lot more weight than the executive or judicial instructions in our society. They can also become safe spaces for homeless people. However, there is a lot more they can do besides inculcating moral values.

AID GOVERNMENTAL EFFORTS

Without prejudice to any religion, I would say that work done by gurudwaras across the country should be emulated by other religious institutions wherever possible. Bangla Sahib gurudwara in Delhi is a case in point. It prepares and distributes food for 75000 distressed people of Delhi per day on all days of the week. The famous golden temple is funding the cost of PPE kits and ventilators. However, other religious institutions, as I already mentioned, don’t have such large amount of funds to perform such activities. In such a situation, they need to work concomitantly with the government by providing their services to the cause. They might not have funds to prepare food for hundreds of hungry people in their vicinity but if they get adequate support from government, which can be in the form of tax concessions and subsidies on the purchase of the raw materials such as food grains and vegetables, they can assist significantly by providing their services to prepare and distribute food. Providing grains at subsidized prices should not be much of a problem for the government considering the excess buffer stock government possesses.

At present when sanitation workers and medical professionals are actively performing their duties, the religious institutions can certainly contribute. Some prominent religious institutions of the area can act as nodes which can facilitate the process of governmental aid actually reaching the intended beneficiary. Religious institutions in India provide haven to hundreds of beggars. It is time, if they cannot personally help, they should make sure that at least ‘their’ needs are taken care of by the authorities. They can also act as quarantine centers, if needed.

BEYOND THE PRESENT

Looking at the bigger picture, the monetisation scheme for the gold rich temples and start-up investments by religious institutions could be considered in the future so that temples and other religious institutions don’t find themselves wanting in any such future crisis. In normal times, many poor people surround temples in the hope of getting food and money from the visitors. This has propagated the culture of giving a man a fish which helps him survive the day. However, if aforementioned schemes are carried out, we may probably be teaching them how to fish. In the Mahabharata war, Lord Krishna didn’t step in directly but was the guiding force for the Pandavas all along. The religious institutions of the day need to be that guiding force for the government against the corona virus which is no more confined to the battlefield of Kurukshetra.

Writer is a First Year Law Student at National Law School of India University

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