Crises are testing times. They also bring out the best and the worst in us. And what better than the Coronavirus pandemic – the worst in living memory – to sample the best and the worst it has revealed.
Some of the best: the selfless service, often beyond the call of duty, by frontline warriors such as health and sanitation workers, police constabulary enforcing lockdowns, farmers, transport workers, street-side vendors of farm produce and grocers…But, often the worst stands out, sometimes ridiculously and sometimes bizarrely.
Look at our fabulously rich places of worship and the men who helm them as brokers between us and the divine.
A couple of days back, Kerala’s temple town Guruvayoor was witness to an unusual (and ridiculous) protest by four Congress party members. Masked, in deference to Covid-19 state government rules, and maintaining a reasonable physical distance from each other, these four men were carrying Congress party flags and, importantly, placards protesting the temple administration’s decision to donate Rs5cr (US$714,000) to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund.
Note that the temple administrator is appointed by the state government which, presently to Kerala’s good fortune, is run by a Marxist party-led leftist coalition. “Temple money for temple purpose”, is the translation, from the Malayalam language, of what the placards said.
Guruvayoor is one of India’s richest temples, receiving an estimated Rs50cr (US$7mn) annually from devotees and is believed to hold about 600-kgs of gold, also offered by the faithful. If not during such a pandemic, when should this wealth be useful to society? Does the Congress party agree with its protesting members? Or is this just an example of the party’s ‘soft’ Hindu ideology? Or is this the party’s way of being in the news and ensuring it’s not rendered irrelevant in Kerala as the leftist government wins all round applause for its methodical, scientific handling of the pandemic? Maybe the party’s first family has some answers?
While the Guruvayoor Congress unit members were engaged in this ridiculous display, a bizarre drama was played out not too far away in Andhra Pradesh, in the temple town of Tirupati. At the Tirupati Balaji temple – reputed to be India’s richest – some 1300 contract workers in the housekeeping and sanitation departments of the three guest houses were sacked.
Bizarrely, these contract workers – at the lowest rung of the employment ladder – were told not to report for work from May 1, International Labour Day. Temple bosses justified their move saying the contract with the agency supplying the workers had run out on April 30 and because of the national lockdown from March 24 fresh tenders could not be issued to hire the lowest priced supplier of contract workers.
Fair enough, but don’t these bosses claiming to represent god possess compassion? Or is it that they care a damn? Mind you, the Tirupati Balaji temple’s budget for the current financial year is Rs3309cr (US$472mn). This is not all! Besides some 9000 tonnes of gold plus silver and precious stones, the Balaji temple’s cash deposits with various banks in 2019 were reportedly Rs12,000cr (US$1.7bn) and just the interest income from these deposits was Rs480cr (US$68mn).
Thankfully, this drama ended on a happy note! As god seemed unwilling to help them, these contract workers decided to help themselves. They began public protests and, clearly embarrassed, the temple bosses reversed their decision!
Such bizarre dramas are surely also being played out at other shrines across India, irrespective of the religion they promote. Put together, these shrines hold vast amounts of cash and precious metals, mainly gold.
Isn’t now the time all these riches were used for human good?
Especially now, as governments want money to finance massive public health spending during the pandemic and to cover the expected huge shortfall in tax revenues as a result of the economic devastation likely.
The gods will enthusiastically agree! But, not so sure about the brokers who claim to represent them!
(Madhu Nainan , who has worked for many media outlets like AFP primarily as a financial journalist, is now an editor at ‘Petrowatch’)