New Delhi: Taking serious note of alleged exploitation of devotees by 'sevaks' at the Puri Jagannath temple in Odisha, the Supreme Court on Friday passed a slew of directions to prevent any such malpractices and mismanagement, just ahead of the annual Rath Yatra next month.
The top court said it is of prime importance that all devotees have hassle-free visits and the offerings made by them are not misused.
It directed the Odisha government to study the management schemes of other important shrines such as Vaishno Devi in Jammu and Kashmir, Somnath temple in Gujarat, Golden Temple in Punjab, Tirupati temple in Andhra Pradesh and Dharamsthala temple in Karnataka.
A vacation bench of justices Adarsh Kumar Goel and Ashok Bhushan, which passed several directions, said proper management of pilgrimage centres in a country of great importance is a matter of public interest.
The bench was hearing a petition filed by Mrinalini Padhi that highlighted difficulties faced by devotees at the Jagannath Temple at Puri and their harassment or exploitation by the sevaks (staff) of the temple.
The petition also pointed out that the environment of the temple was not hygienic as it ought to be, and there are encroachments at its premises.
It alleged that there are deficiencies in the management of the shrine and rituals are being commercialised.
The bench sought response from the Centre, the Odisha government and the temple's management committee and said the issue raised in the petition involves enforcement of fundamental rights under Article 25 and directive principles of the Constitution.
"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," the bench said.
Millions of people visit these centres not only for tourism, but also for seeking inspiration for righteous values and their well being, and make huge offerings and donations for advancement of such values, it said.
"It is of prime importance that all the visitors have hassle-free visits and the offerings made are utilised for righteous objects and not misappropriated in any manner by the staff/ sevaks," the bench said.
It directed that the staff or 'sevaks' ought to be duly compensated by the legitimate remuneration as may be determined by the authority concerned. "The issue of hygiene and encroachment also need to be considered. Exploitative practices have to be timely stopped," the bench directed.
Referring to an apex court verdict of 1997, it said under the Shri Jagannath Temple Act, 1954, there was a requirement of placing of 'hundis' for receiving offerings of devotees visiting the temple.
It directed that district judge of Puri to file an interim report by June 30 on the factual aspects such as difficulties faced by the devotees, exploitative practices and deficiencies in the management, if any. "The collector/administrator may provide necessary funds, facilities and information, as may be necessary. He (the district judge) may consider any earlier study/report on the subject," the top court said.
The bench directed the administrator of the temple to review the arrangement of CCTV cameras that have been already installed and said video footage should be viewed by an independent committee.
It said the independent committee, which will view the CCTV footage at regular interval, should submit its report to the district judge every month so that necessary directions can be issued.
The top court asked the administrator to ensure that no direct collection of offerings is made by any 'sevak' and all the offerings are made either in the 'hundi' or are deposited and accounted for and properly utilised.
"There should not be any individual pockets (of offerings) made by the sevaks/attendants who may be given their due remuneration as per rules. To ensure this, the help of CCTV cameras and its footage or other steps may be explored," the bench said.
It directed the Odisha government to constitute, forthwith, a committee which may study the management schemes in the other important shrines and suggest such changes as may be considered necessary.
The bench directed the committee constituted by the state to submit its interim report by June 30.
It asked the Centre to also constitute a committee to collect information with regard to major shrines so that the management practices can be reviewed for the benefit of all visitors, wherever necessary.
The bench appointed senior advocate Gopal Subramanium as amicus curiae to assist the court in the matter and directed him to collate all the reports of various committees and give his suggestions, if any.