Justice S.M. Subramaniam said only officers, known for their integrity and devotion to duty, should be made part of the special cell whose phone numbers should be displayed in all temples

The Madras High Court on Wednesday directed the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department to issue a public notification calling upon encroachers of temple properties spread across the State to voluntarily surrender the lands within a stipulated time failing which criminal proceedings would be initiated against them including detention under the Goondas Act. The court also ordered constitution of a special cell to retrieve the encroached temple properties.

Justice S.M. Subramaniam said only officers, known for their integrity and devotion to duty, should be made part of the special cell whose phone numbers should be displayed in all temples in the State and on notice boards of HR&CE Department offices so that people interested in protecting temple lands could lodge complaints. He also directed the Director General of Police (DGP) to provide protection to the officials engaged in retrieving the encroached properties from land sharks.

Making it clear that action should be initiated either under the HR&CE Act of 1959 or the criminal laws or the Goondas Act as per the facts of the encroachment concerned, the judge wrote: “The respondents (State government, HR&CE Department and DGP) shall not hesitate to invoke the provisions of the Goondas Act against such professional land grabbers and persons involved in encroachment and illegal activities in respect of the temple properties at large for personal and unjust gains.”

The judge said, fraudulent and illegal encroachment of temple properties was a crime against the society at large. Misappropriation of temple funds was also undoubtedly an offence and all such offences must be registered and the offenders must be prosecuted by the State. “Temple properties are looted by greedy men and few professional criminals or land grabbers. Active or passive contribution/collusion by HR&CE Department officials cannot be overruled,” he added.

“These lapses, negligence and dereliction of duty on the part of such public officials are also to be viewed seriously and all appropriate actions in this regard are highly warranted… Instances are many where persons entrusted with the duty of managing and safeguarding the properties of temples, deities and Devaswom Boards have usurped and misappropriated such properties by setting up false claims of ownership or tenancy, or adverse possession. Such acts of ‘fences eating the crops’ should also be dealt with sternly,” the court observed.

Highlighting the necessity for the government, members or trustees of Boards/Trusts and devotees to be vigilant enough to prevent any such usurpation or encroachment, the judge said, it was the duty of the courts too to protect and safeguard the properties of religious and charitable institutions from wrongful claims or misappropriation. He also recorded the submissions made by Advocate General (A-G) R. Shunmugasundaram with respect to action taken so far to retrieve temple lands under encroachment.

The A-G told the court that the HR&CE Department had constituted committees to identify and scrutinise property details of 39,743 religious institutions in the State and those committees had so far identified properties of 17,185 religious institutions covering an extent of 1,28,563 acres of lands in 50,490 pieces/parcels of land. Those committees had scrutinised 15,256 properties and identified 20,776 unauthorised occupation without the approval of the competent authority sanctioning lease or mortgage.

Action for removal of those encroachments were initiated by invoking Section 78 of the HR&CE Act. Already action had been initiated against 8,188 encroachers covering an extent of 4,118 acres and action was about to be taken against 10,930 more encroachers covering an extent of 3,526 acres. From May 16, 2011 to May 6, 2021, an extent of 3,177 acres of land, 629 grounds of vacant site and 343 grounds of buildings, totally worth ₹3,819 crore, had been retrieved, the A-G said.

He also stated that from May 7, 2021 to September 9, 2021, an extent of 214 acres, 217 grounds of vacant site, two grounds of buildings and 15 grounds of temple tank worth of ₹925 crore had been retrieved. Several other inquiries regarding retrieval of encroached temple lands were also pending before the Regional Joint Commissioners of HR&CE Department. Officials were also comparing the details of the temple properties with the data base of Tamil Nilam, a government website and reconciling them.

So far, the Department had obtained order cancelling ‘patta’ (revenue document on land ownership) with respect to 9,474 acres of land. Details of temple properties had also been uploaded on the HR&CE website and the Department had engaged 142 licensed surveyors and 50 rover equipment to earmark the boundaries of temple lands and upload the progress of the work on a daily basis on Google worksheets. Such survey would ensure seamless integration between the data bases of the HR & CE Department and the Revenue Department, the A-G said.

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