On April 17, a truck was stopped by the Static Surveillance Team of the Election Commission in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvallur district as part of vehicle checking in view of the elections scheduled the next day and the officials were dumbstruck to find it carrying over a 1,000 kg gold.
It was not an ordinary truck but the one belonging to Punjab National Bank (PNB) and the officials accompanying the gold told the EC team that 1,381 kg gold was being transported to Tirupati for handing it over to Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD), which manages the affairs of Sri Venkateswara Temple.
The poll body, however, seized the truck pending an inquiry and alerted the Income Tax department. As the news spread, TTD denied that the gold seized by the EC belonged to it, making the case curious.
The gold was released only two days later after PNB showed documents to prove that the gold indeed belong to TTD and it was being transported at the end of three-year term of gold deposit scheme.
The entire saga left everyone puzzled. When it was TTD’s gold, why the denial? Leaders of BJP alleged that the incident tarnished TTD’s name in the entire country and hurt the sentiments of Hindus. Others claimed lapses in the system followed by TTD as it was not even aware that PNB was bringing back its gold.
Inquiry ordered in haste
Andhra Pradesh Chief Secretary LV Subrahmanyam, who is virtually running the administration as the model code of conduct is in force, ordered an inquiry into the alleged lapses into the release and transportation of the gold.
He asked Special Chief Secretary, Revenue, Manmohan Singh to find out ‘the specific lapses, if any, on the part of PNB and TTD.
The inquiry officer was directed to see if there were written instructions issued by the Executive Officer, TTD and what was the role of TTD vigilance wing. The officer was asked to suggest on what special care vigilance wing of TTD has to take in future.
However, this appeared to be hasty move without cross-checking the procedure and rules followed by the TTD. A few hours after the inquiry was ordered, TTD Executive Officer (EO) defended the stand taken by TTD after coming to know of the seizure of gold. His argument was simple. It can’t be TTD gold until it reaches its treasury.
“How do I know how much gold the truck was carrying and what was its transit route,” asked TTD EO Anil Kumar Singhal. His contention was that the entire responsibility of security and transportation of the gold was with PNB, which was supposed to deliver the gold at TTD treasury on April 18, the day when three-year gold deposit term was to end. The seizure and subsequent row resulted in the delay of two days.
It was in 2016 that TTD had deposited 1311 kg gold with PNB, which returned the same with interest in the form of additional 70 kg gold.
Sitting on 9,259 kg gold reserves
The controversy led to the TTD coming out with details of its gold reserves, providing a glimpse into the wealth of the world’s richest Hindu temple.
Singhal revealed that the hill shrine owns 9,259 kg of gold. While 5,387 kg of gold is with the State Bank of India, another 1,938 kg of gold is with the Indian Overseas Bank under different gold deposit schemes.
In addition to 1381 kg gold which has now come back to TTD, it has 553 kg of gold comprising small jewellery and other items in the treasury.
TTD has been depositing the yellow metal under gold deposit schemes in various nationalised banks since 2000.
After the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) launched gold monetisation scheme in 2015, the temple body deposited different quantities of gold under short, medium and long term schemes in various banks.
TTD officials hinted that the Trust Board, the highest decision making panel, would review its gold deposit scheme as they believe that percentage of returns under gold monetisation scheme is miniscule.
TTD will explore better options to enhance its income under the gold deposit scheme and take a decision after consulting team of experts, they said.
TTD and its share of controversies
Controversies are not new to TTD. As the party in power appoints its own men as chairman and members of the Trust Board, the body often faces allegations of financial and other irregularities from the rivals.
Last year former chief priest of the temple AV Ramana Deekshitulu made allegations of corruption against TTD administration. He claimed TTD officials were hiding the fact that some of the jewellery is missing from the vaults. However, Ramana was accused of taking help of an evangelical group to target TTD.
In fact in recent years the head of TTD and members were also accused of supporting evangelical activity on seven hills, which all fall in temple’s purview.
The recent row brought the spotlight on the income and wealth of the Tirupati temple. Also popular as Balaji temple, it is often compared with Vatican City.
Believed to have been constructed in 1570, it draws 50,000 to 100,000 pilgrims every day. On special occasions and festivals, like the annual Brahmotsavam, the number shoots up to 500,000.
The devotees make offerings in the form of cash, jewellery, gold, silver, property deeds, and demat shares. The gold offerings alone estimated to be 100 kg every month or 1.2 tonnes a year.
Budget for 2019-20
Last week, the TTD presented its budget proposals for 2019-20. It expects an overall revenue of about ₹3,116 crore during the year. Its income from offerings has been projected at ₹1,231 crore.
TTD chairman Putta Sudhakar Yadav said the revenue from the interest on deposits in nationalised and private banks was estimated to be about ₹846 crore.
The temple body expects ₹292 crore from sale of tickets for various forms of worship and another ₹270 crore from sale of ‘laddu prasadam’.
Auction of human hair offered by devotees as fulfilment of their vow, is also a source of revenue and the temple expects to earn ₹10 crore from it.
The salaries to over 6,000 staff and outsourcing personnel and other expenses are expected to be ₹965 crore.