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Row over govt stand on land

- Fear of property going to vested hands

Bhubaneswar, Dec. 15: The state government’s move to amend the Odisha Religious Endowments Act, 1951, to ensure that properties of religious establishments, when up for sale, are first offered to the state, has raised the hackles of the Opposition and religious leaders.

Around 16,000 temples and mutts across the state will come under the purview of the proposed legislation. However, the government is yet to make an estimate of the land belonging to these organisations.

The amendment bill, which was passed in the Assembly tonight, is aimed at making the government the first buyer of endowment properties on sale in the state for use of public purposes. The state’s endowment commissioner would determine the price of the land. In case the government does not want the land, it may be offered to others, he said.

However, religious leaders have decried the move as a sell-out. President of the Odisha Mutt Mandir Suraksha Parishad Mahant Krushna Charan Das Goswami described the move as “a plan to commit robbery in daylight”.

“The government is doing all this not with the intention of protecting the property belonging to religious institutions but to further the interests of the political class and vested interests,” he said.

Das Goswami said that in the past, properties belonging to Lord Jagannath and Lord Lingaraj had passed into private hands and unscrupulous elements had taken advantage of it.

“Before taking any decision to amend the act, the government should have sought the opinion of religious leaders and mahants, who have been looking after such properties since generations,” he added.

However, law minister Raghunath Mohanty, who piloted the bill, has stated that the immovable properties of religious institutions are mostly located in areas where urbanisation and industrialisation is taking place at a rapid pace. Considering the escalating price of real estate, the buyers, more often than not, happen to be from the higher income group and also land mafia.

In important places when land is not available for public use, others are buying the land of these institutions. Such land would help the government in building public institutions such as offices, courts and also construction of roads, said Mohanty.

Reacting to this, BJP legislature party leader K.V. Singhdeo wondered why the state government was so keen to protect “so-called public interest”. “This government had acquired the landed properties of Lord Jagannath for establishment of a private university by the Vedanta Group in Puri,” he said.

The Opposition Congress and BJP, who demanded withdrawal of the Bill, also opposed the move.

Congress leader Prasad Harichandan said the intention of the proposed legislation was ambiguous. “We have no objection if the government acquires an endowment property for public purposes. However, if the government plays the role of a broker, the property may end up in the hands of people with vested interests. The purpose of the legislation will ultimately be defeated,” he said, adding that the legislative intent should be spelt out clearly.