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Plea Against Mismanagement, Difficulties And Harassment/Exploitation Of Visitors By Sevaks In Lord Jagannath Temple: SC Issues Directions [Read Order]

The Supreme Court on Friday issued a string of interim directions for the protection of the sanctity and ethos of the Lord Jagannath Temple in Orissa and to ensure hassle-free access to the devotees.

“The issue of public importance highlighted in this petition relates to the difficulties faced by the visitors to Shri Jagannath Temple at Puri, and their harassment or exploitation by the Sevaks of the temple. It is also pointed out that the environment of the surroundings is not hygienic as it ought to be. There are encroachments. It is also mentioned that there are deficiencies in the management of the Shrine. Rituals are commercialised”

A vacation bench of Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel and Justice Ashok Bhushan was hearing a PIL filed in the wake of the disappearance of keys of Ratna Bhandar of the temple which stores the valuables of the shrine.

“The issue raised involves enforcement of fundamental right under Article 25 and Directive Principles under Article 38, 49 and 2 51A(f) and (g) of the Constitution of India and other rights”, said the Bench.

Attaching “historical and architectural importance” to such places of worship, the bench acknowledged the grievances of millions of visitors to the temple, the unhygienic surrounding environment, the gross deficiencies in management and the consequent ramifications on tourism, culture and the society at large.

“There is no doubt that proper management of pilgrimage centres of great importance is a matter of public interest. These centres are of undoubted religious, social historical and architectural importance, representing cultural heritage of our country. Millions of people visit these centres not only for tourism but also for seeking inspiration for the righteous values and for their well being. They also make huge offerings and donations for advancement of such values”, observed the Bench.

In view of the aforesaid, the bench inter alia required:

• That the factual aspects of the difficulties to be examined by the district judge and an interim report be submitted to the apex court by June 30;

• That there be a review of the arrangement of the CCTV cameras, the footage thereof being viewed by an independent committee which shall then prepare a report every month for perusal by the district judge;

• That there be no direct collection of the offerings by the priest and that the same be utilized by the management trust for legitimate purposes and for the welfare of the people; and

• That the state of Orissa shall appoint a committee of 2-3 members to study the management skills of such other places of worship as the Vaishno Devi temple, the Somnath Temple, the Golden Temple and the shrine at Shirdi.

Noting that the said issues are also pertinent to other shrines, the bench required the Union of India to constitute a committee to prepare a report in respect of other places of worship having national importance.

Senior counsel Gopal Subramanium has been appointed the amicus curiae in the matter.

The PIL prayed that the judicial inquiry being undertaken by former Orissa High Court judge Justice Raghubir Das, on the direction of the state government, be monitored by the apex court. Further, it has been sought that an inventory be maintained of the contents of Ratna Bhandar.

The bench on Friday remarked, “We are not stopping other authorities or courts from dealing with the individual issues…in that context, you have section 92 of the CPC…we are only concerned with the general aspects…we are trying to facilitate for the sake of the lakhs and lakhs of people who visit the temple, so that there is no exploitation, no misuse of funds and no encroachment or malpractice…we are only dealing with the non adversarial issues…”

In its 2015 judgment in Sri Jagannath Temple Management v Siddha Math, the Supreme Court bench of Justice V Gopala Gowda and Justice C Nagappan had held that the ‘amrutamanohi’ properties vested in favour of the Lord Jagannath Temple at Puri, by virtue of the provisions of the Temple Act, 1955, cannot be called ‘Trust Estates’. Therein, the apex court had struck down the first part of the proviso to Section 2(oo) of the Orissa Estate Abolition Act, 1951, which pertained to the properties of the Jagannath Temple.

Mr. Vikramjeet Banerjee, Additional Solicitor General for the Union of India, was present in Court and on Court’s request, heagreed to put in appearance for respondent no.1-Union of India.

Adv Subhranshu Padhy (AOR) appeared for petitioner and Adv Sibo Sankar Mishra appeared for state of Odisha.

On Friday, it was also contended that the said judgment has not been complied with.

The matter is next scheduled for hearing on July 5.

Directions

(i) The District Judge, Puri, may give a report on factual aspects of
(a) Difficulties faced by the visitors;
(b) Exploitative practices, if any;
(c) Deficiencies in the management, if any;
(d) Suggestions, if any.
The District Judge, Puri, may give an interim report by June 30, 2018. He may take assistance of the Collector and the Administrator. The Collector/Administrator may provide necessary funds, facilities and information, as may be necessary. He may consider any earlier study/report on the 4 subject.

(ii) We also direct the Administrator to review the arrangement of CCTV camras already installed. Apart from the installation of more CCTV camras at appropriate locations, footage thereof should be viewed by an independent committee at suitable intervals and the report thereof be given to the District Judge, Puri, once in every month so that the District Judge may issue any direction in this regard, if necessary.

(iii) The Administrator may also ensure that no direct collection of the offerings is made by any Sevaks and all the offerings either in hundi or are deposited and accounted for and properly utilized. They should not be individual pockets by the Sevaks/attendants who may be given their due remuneration as per rules. To ensure this, the help of CCTV camras and its footage or other steps may be explored.

(iv) We direct the State of Orissa to constitute forthwith a Committee which may study the management schemes in other important shrines such as Vaishno Devi, Somnath Temple, Golden Temple, Amritsar, Tirupati Temple, Dharamsthala (Karnataka) Temple and suggest such changes as may be considered necessary. The Committee may also give its interim report by June 30, 2018.

(v) Since these issues may be common to various other important shrines in the country, we also direct respondent no.1 – Union of India to constitute a committee to collect information with regard to such other shrines so that the management practices therein can be reviewed for the benefit 5 of all visitors, wherever necessary.

(vi) It is of prime importance that all the visitors have hassle free visits and the offerings made are utilized for righteous objects and not misappropriated in any manner by the staff/Sevaks. Of course, the staff/Sevkas ought to be duly compensated by the legitimate remuneration as may be determined by the concerned authority. The issue of hygiene and encroachment also need be considered. Exploitative practices have to be timely stopped.

Read the Order and Petition Here

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