Temple of Gloom – Unholy Mess in Tirumala Tirupathi Temple

published on September 15, 2010

By Amarnath K Menon


Lord Vekateswara’s benevolence draws millions of devotees to the Tirumala temple, but maladministration and misdemeanour are shaking the faith in the governance of the richest Hindu religious entity. Rocked by controversies and scandals, the Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanams (TTD) is being accused by employees and trustees of being in disrepute. The charges are so serious that on the expiry of the tenure of the existing board of trustees last week, Chief Minister Konjeti Rosaiah appointed a Specified Authority (SA) of three IAS officers to oversee temple affairs. “Our foremost priority is to serve the devotees in an effective manner and ensure a transparent administration,” says J. Satyanarayana, chairman of the SA that is mandated to clean up the mess and put governance back in order without eroding faith.

That may be a hard task. Inquiries by India Today revealed that gross mismanagement of valued assets including jewellery, poor auditing, lack of transparency, sales of advance tickets and belligerence of employees has plagued the functioning of the TTD. With an annual budget of Rs 1,335 crore, 8,000 regular employees and another 6,000 outsourced for various jobs, the TTD is an empire in itself. It is the wealthiest religious entity in the world with 14 tonnes of gold and jewellery worth Rs 500 crore.

Internal reports by B.V. Ramana Kumar, former chief vigilance and security officer of the TTD, presented on July 28, 2008 and February 23, 2009, have bared the misappropriation of 300 gold medallions in 2007. The report suggested measures to ensure safety of the jewellery and punitive action in the conspiracy, criminal breach of trust, forgery, corruption and cyber crime involved in the manipulation of online and advance booking of tickets by temple officials.

Unholy Mess

1.   The Tirumala temple has 14 tonnes of gold reserves and jewellery worth Rs 500 crore donated by devotees. These have not been recorded and valued properly and security for them is not foolproof. Three years ago, 300 gold medallions were misappropriated, exposing security and safety loops.

2.   Online tickets for rituals and darshan are booked in advance and sold for a premium by TTD officials in connivance with touts, resulting in huge losses to the temple. Tickets for some rituals have already been booked till 2100, allegedly through touts.

3.   Recording of finances and accounting practices are so shoddy that it is impossible to retrieve the total assets of the TTD from one single source. This makes it easier to siphon off funds from the TTD.

4.   High positions on the TTD board are held by political appointees, resulting in corruption and mismanagement of funds.   Kumar made specific suggestions for greater accountability and transparency. These include keeping temple jewellery under physical custody of two gazetted officers with a double lock system; maintaining records of transfer and handling of jewellery on a daily basis giving the date, time and name of the handler; conducting a monthly inspection by the Joint Executive Officer of the TTD and making a detailed annual inspection in the presence of a team of designated senior TTD officials.

For a self-appraisal of procedures, the TTD has constituted a six-person committee headed by retired Supreme Court judge D.P. Wadhwa. It will look into the safety and security of temple ornaments, whether their security is foolproof, examine maintenance of the inventory register, periodic appraisals of the ornaments by the official gold appraiser and maintenance of stock registers regarding ornaments donated by devotees from around the world. The panel, which has met twice since January, will meet again at the end of September to finalise its findings.

During 2004-08, the TTD had been toying with the idea of using CCTV cameras to track the movement of jewels and the maintenance of registers. After digitisation of the jewellery stock was done, the initiative gathered dust. Worse, the actual value of the jewellery inventory is not known and it is grossly undervalued. Jewellery appraisers hired by the TTD are not skilled and valuations are not based on current market rates. There is a need for a panel of experts to value and index it to gold rates at least once in five years for a realistic appraisal.

The recording and accounting practices are so shoddy that it is impossible to retrieve the total assets of the TTD across the country from a single source. The TTD’s current financial advisor and chief accounts officer, from the Indian Revenue Service, is not familiar with best finance, audit and accounting norms and practices. Consequently, attempts at vigil are turned into turf battles. Pointing out that the black marketing in advance reservation tickets flourished because no action was taken on the basis of vigilance reports in 2007 and 2008, a distraught Kumar wrote, “This is because these employees have no fear of God, no fear of punishment and no integrity”. He suggested that the investigation be handed over to the Andhra Pradesh Police to bring the offenders to book and streamline the system. But it is glossed over.

An independent probe by the Department of Vigilance and Enforcement headed by V. Dinesh Reddy, director general of police, threw up startling facts. The advance bookings of tickets for ritual and darshan are mired in shady deals between 54 people, including at least three members of the TTD board-M. Anjaiah, Kale Yadaiah and G. Subrahmanayam who demitted office last month-and travel agents and touts. The report points out how the board members’ private assistants employ assistants to sell the discretionary quota tickets for sevas and darshan at exorbitant rates in the black market. It also pointed out that some TTD employees working at Tirumala are also part of the black market business. This brings to light how advance booking for the most sought-after and high-end sevas like Vashtram and Abhishekam have been issued till 2100, ninety years from now. For this, some unscrupulous travel agents and conniving employees hacked the TTD website to manipulate the bookings.

Even as they demitted office in August, the controversial board members accused Joint Executive Officer A.V. Dharma Reddy of unscrupulous practices. With one of Dharma’s assistants committing suicide and TTD employees demanding his removal, the state Government was forced to send him packing from Tirumala to the state Information Commission in Hyderabad last week.

The three controversial members were accommodated on the board as part of political patronage following the appointment of D.K. Adikesavulu as chairman in thanksgiving for defecting from the TDP to support UPA-1 during the 2008 confidence vote in the Lok Sabha. Dinesh’s 158-page report presented on August 13, 2010, to the state Government recommends measures to put an end to the racketeering. These include insisting on identity proof of devotees at the time of booking and crosschecking them when they arrive for the rituals and darshan; cut back on the discretionary quota enjoyed by the TTD Board of Trustees; reviewing the system of trustees appointing private assistants who, in turn, employ others as touts who sell the tickets at a premium. Such a practice should entail severe punishment.

The recommendations are simple ones that even a small entity would enforce as a routine measure. But not for the TTD. It is ironical that at its last meeting, a clueless TTD had asked the Andhra Pradesh Government to order a comprehensive probe into the activities of its own temple administration. This was virtually a failure of the TTD board to play an active and advisory role in the management. The 14 board members are seen as holding high-profile positions, dispensing favours and making money at the cost of the temple. The executive officer has the authority to bring to the state Government’s notice if any of the members’ decisions are anti-religion or against the interests of the temple.

“Our priority is to serve devotees effectively and ensure a transparent administration.”J. Satyanarayana, chairman, Specified Authority

With huge finances at its disposal, the TTD has expanded beyond its own control. It needs to reinvent itself by focusing on core functions like pilgrim-centric services including easy darshan, security, prasadams, accommodation, finances and outsourcing all non-core activities. For this, downsizing is a must; so is strengthening internal mechanisms like audit and minimising discretion, which in the hands of a few, has made the TTD a hub for corruption. Jobs have been grabbed as if they were hereditary rights by those without skills and competence. Some have been appointed to key decision-making posts that they are likely to hold for nearly two decades. A devout TTD insider says, “Only the Lord can clean up this mess.”

Stern measures are difficult to introduce as the belligerent employees hold the TTD management to ransom. Many are not qualified, and career related training opportunities are not available. Political interference has to be minimised and politicians should be barred from the TTD board. Instead, representatives from among donors, experts who can advise on improving TTD operations and people known for public service should be included. For this, the TTD will have to be run like a corporate with its management culled from government officials skilled in administration, finance and security. Chief Minister Rosaiah will have to leverage on the latest Specified Authority to push for those reforms. But till that happens, all that hapless devotees can count on is divine intervention.

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