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Time for temple freedom in India. Release them from HRCE Act, bring market economics

The issue of temple management in India is an involved one. Yet, splintered groups of people have consistently advocated for temple freedom. Finally, there seems to be some action in the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled state of Karnataka, where Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai announced that the government will introduce a new Bill to “free” temples from bureaucratic control.

Hindu temples under state shackles

Hindu temples have long been governed, and at times simultaneously, by a motley of laws. About five different Acts were governing the temples in Karnataka, including the infamous Madras Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act, 1951. In 1997, the Karnataka Hindu Religious Institutions and Charitable Endowments Act (HRCE Act) was introduced as the single-governing law for all the temples in the state. The pretext was that temples needed ‘good management’, and the Act introduced a multi-tiered governing system.

The network of temples is now governed by the state and district-level Dharmika Parishats and each temple is governed by temple-level ‘Committee of Management’ formed largely by the government administration.

Out of the 1,80,000 temples in Karnataka, around 34,500 are governed by the state. Section 23 of the HRCE Act gives arbitrary power to the government to bring any temple under its purview, and Section 25 gives the power to a management committee to run a temple. In addition to the over-bureaucratised temple system and the obvious possible mismanagement of funds, we need to look at the larger spillovers of temple freedom.

Also read: Karnataka CM Bommai vows to bring law to free temples from govt control, fulfil BJP poll promise

Mutts as the precedents

Few large-scale Hindu institutions are free from the control of the government  — this makes it hard to predict the effects of freeing temples. Fortunately, the same draconian act that shackles temples somewhat guarantees freedom to mathas or mutts (as spelled in the HRCE Act). As defined by the HRCE Act, mutts are religious institutions presided over by a person whose principal duty is to engage himself in the teaching and propagation of religion and the philosophy associated with a particular denomination.

With sufficient similarity in their working as institutions, the baseline effects of temple freedom can be derived from the impact generated by unregulated mutts. Indeed, some mutts are well-known to run large-scale educational institutions, healthcare facilities, essential services, and even cutting-edge research centres. Unequivocally, their effects in providing the above goods and services have a positive effect on millions of beneficiaries.

It is well-known that market structures yield the most efficient outcomes in many cases. Work in economics research (particularly by Kaivan Munshi) has shown that caste networks are a good substitute for market structures that are still nascent in Indian society. Caste networks aid constituent individuals in securing jobs, migration, and even help in risk-sharing against adverse events. Mutts are perhaps an even more efficient manifestation of caste networks with a positive impact on followers.

In comparison, temples are more universal and inclusive, having a wider reach cutting across caste networks. Temple-based institutions can create pseudo-market structures that can dole out efficient outcomes. The HRCE Act allows ossified government structures to barely maintain and upkeep the temple infrastructure. They are managed by overburdened bureaucrats and inefficient governments, which keep bringing back the unoriginal, draconian laws even after high courts strike them down. Under such circumstances, temple management neither has the incentives nor the freedom for creative use of funds that could benefit Hindu society at large.

However, mutts show us the way towards healthy autonomy in the usage of funds at the discretion of the community. Their functioning also shows that mismanagement is often disciplined by followers and the relevant religious denomination.

Also read: Freeing Hindu Temples is a liberal idea against a hypocrite State

Regulate, don’t manage

Another lesson can be inferred from the management style of mutts to allay the fears of those who oppose temple freedom — autonomy must be given to temples to constitute their governing boards. Of course, the essential features of Section 25 of the HRCE Act can be retained to guarantee caste and women’s representation. The government should ensure that it will control regulations and not management.

In addition, exclusionary practices will not be possible as they will violate multiple fundamental rights, including Article 17 (Abolition of Untouchability). Predictably, autonomy can be messy and even counter-productive in the short run, but certainly, it is the only way to go in the long run. The opposition in Karnataka primarily emanates from the Congress and its socialist approach to most governance issues as is evident from the statements of opposition leader Siddaramaiah.

Socialist tendencies in the Congress seem to mistrust most forms of freedom — earlier economic and market freedom, now the fear of misuse of temple freedom. On the contrary, freedom from the HRCE Act will enable temples and communities to do the greater good that is expected from a religious society.

Also read: Rollback of Char Dham Act has a message for all governments — free India’s temples

Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, so why not Hindus?

Giving freedom to temples will also enable them to build world-class institutions. As a student at the University of Cambridge, I have always wondered if such massive educational institutions could be built in modern India. Most of the colleges at Cambridge (and the University of Oxford) began as churches, nunneries, and places run by religious institutions. They eventually grew to be the centres of sciences and wider education with the backing of the same religious institutions.

Hindu mutts have shown the same appetite. The current endowments and future contributions to temples can all be better used to build institutions that have multiplier effects on society. Freedom from the government has always been enjoyed by other religions in India, and hence the ubiquitous presence of Christian and Jain educational entities. The same applies for other minority religions —  Muslims have madrasas and Sikhs have the autonomy to run similar institutions. While this has worked well for other communities, the Hindu community has been arbitrarily chosen to be regulated. Undoubtedly, the greatest achievement of temple freedom will be in letting the Hindu religion to work towards the greater good of society.

Also read: New corridor, more breathing space — how Puri Jagannath temple is revamping for the times

Replace govt whims with market competition

Research in economics shows that healthy competition among religious institutions benefits followers — institutions will improve their management to deliver the best of religious and non-religious services. Market-like competition is a good disciplining mechanism as opposed to the HRCE Act, which appoints people who serve at the whims of the government. Although the Act explicitly bans members of political parties to be associated with the temple management committees, it is rarely enforced. Unsurprisingly, non-hereditary members of boards play to the tune of the government of the day.

In conclusion, the government must consider a phased implementation of temple freedom. The temples classified based on their income (Grade A, Grade B, and Grade C) are almost like a Pareto distribution. However, a majority of them — about 34,000 out of 34,500 — are Grade C temples that have an annual income less than five lakhs rupees.

Large and powerful Grade A and Grade B temples must be given freedom as soon as possible. In addition, a new survey must be conducted for Grade C temples to ascertain their assets — moving beyond just annual income and having newer metrics that are more sophisticated. Once this is done, the aim should be to bestow freedom in phases to Grade C temples to avoid their failure and closure, as this is indeed the original object of the HRCE Act. The Common Pool of Funds created by the Act must be powered through other legitimate sources of government revenue as opposed to illegally drawing money from larger temples. Finally, the aim should be to reduce the number of temples dependent on the Common Pool of Funds over time.

From an economist’s perspective, it is clear that temple freedom will certainly have a large positive impact on society. It is time for the government to promulgate a new bill or amend the HRCE Act.

Kishen Shastry is pursuing a PhD in Economics at the University of Cambridge. He is also a recipient of the Adam Smith Fellowship at the Mercatus Centre in George Mason University. He tweets @kskishen. Vijeta Ananth Kumar is Economics and Public Policy Researcher and holds a Masters in Economics from Azim Premji University.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

Source: The Print

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