Over the last few years, the Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) - and by extension, the Odisha government – have made a habit of making a mess of everything when it comes to running the affairs of the 12th century temple.
First, it was the monumental mismanagement of the Nabakalaebara in July, 2015, the much awaited occasion that comes every 12 or 19 years when the ‘soul’ of the deities are transferred to a new set of wooden images. Next came the fiasco over the ‘missing keys to the Ratna Bhandar (Treasure Trove) of the ornament rich temple in 2018, a mystery that is yet to be resolved.. As if that was not bad enough, the Lords had to go ‘hungry’ and thousands of devotees deprived of their much loved ‘mahaprasad’ for two days last year because of the inept handling of a strike by the ‘prasad’ makers.
And now, after the RBI announcement of a 30-day moratorium on and supercession of the Board of Directors of Yes Bank, outrage over the parking of as much as Rs 545 crores of temple money in the beleaguered bank has got a fresh lease of life.
The decision to park the money in Yes Bank was taken by SJTA unilaterally without informing or taking sanction from the Temple Management Committee, the rightful body to take a call on such matters , in gross violation of temple rules. After the decision taken on the sly became public, the Temple Management Committee, in a meeting in February, expressed serious concern over the safety of the money in a private bank and took a decision to withdraw the whole amount and deposit it in a nationaliased bank, as required under the rules.
Law minister Pratap Jena said on Friday that the money had been deposited in the shape of two term deposits which would mature on March 16 and 29 respectively and assured the people that the money is safe and will be duly deposited in a nationalized bank as per the decision of the Temple Management Committee. But he did not utter a word on how the decision to park money in Yes Bank was taken, surreptitiously and against the rules, in the first place? Nor did he bother to tell the people if any action is being contemplated against the officials responsible.
While the parking of the temple funds was already public knowledge, the fresh concerns are the result of the moratorium announced by the RBI. Sources say the bank was committed to returning the deposit money in three instalments on March 19, 23 and 29. But with the supercession of the Yes Bank board, there is legitimate apprehension if the bank will be able to honour its commitment. The minister’s assurance appears to have done precious little in allaying fears on this count.
The outrage has been accompanied by allegations of kickbacks and underhand deals behind the hush-hush decision. “How come the SJTA took the decision to take out money deposited in a nationalized bank and deposit it in Yes Bank in March, 2019 when anyone who knows anything about eh banking sector knew by then that it was in the doldrums and had been sliding down rapidly since 2017?” asks Kartik Chandra Das, a banker.
The revelation on Friday about the Tirupathi Thirumala Devasthanam (TTD) withdrawing all of its deposit worth over Rs 1, 330 crore last October only served to fuel the anger further.
“Why couldn’t the temple administration see it coming? What were the fat-salaried financial advisors of the temple administration and the state government doing?” asks Madhabananda Mishra, an outraged devotee. Senior servitor Binayak Dasmohapatra has demanded stringent action against the officials responsible for parking of temple funds in the crisis-ridden bank.
No official is ready to come on record about this. But privately, the say the decision was taken in good faith because of the higher interest rate (8.65%) offered by Yes Bank. But financial experts refuse to buy the argument. “Safety of the money rather than interest should have been the priority. And it has been known in financial circles for some time now that Yes Bank was in crisis,” says chartered accountant Rajiv Sahu.
While there is no real danger of the money being lost in view of the assurances of Union Finance minister and the RBI Governor, the people are angry because of the casual manner in which the official have played around with the Lord’s money.