Should Tirupati Temple, India’s Richest Shrine, Have Ousted 1,300 Workers in the Middle of a Pandemic?

Social Commentary

Should Tirupati Temple, India’s Richest Shrine, Have Ousted 1,300 Workers in the Middle of a Pandemic?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

I don’t think I’ll ever forget my first – and only – visit to the Tirupati Tirumala Temple in Andhra Pradesh. Eight years ago, on the birth of my first-born, we arrived in the temple town close to noon and rushed to queue up… And then continued to stay in it for the next 18 hours. Cramped and squished by the teeming human mass around us, I nearly had a panic attack.

Alternating between holding my breath and heaving in huge gulps of air, I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to imagine that I was bobbing in a poppy field with my little one, instead of here. I managed several musings about faith, God, rituals, strictures, etc., as also the need for any of it. I might have just about escaped becoming an atheist that day.

For the first time in 128 years, the temple has been shut for pilgrims, owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. Apart from the main temple, 50 sub-temples under the administration of TTD have also been closed. As a result, the Tirupati Balaji temple has just fired 1,300 contractual workers. A place of worship that attracts 30,000 to 40,000 visitors a day, an estimated 75,000 visitors on New Year’s Day alone, has a 2,000-year-old history, and is, by all estimates, the richest temple body in India… cannot afford to pay its workers for a few weeks of lockdown?

Is it really fair that one of the richest temples in the world, cannot “afford” the upkeep of its contractual workers in a pandemic?

According to media reports, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) Board, the trust that manages the temple, did not renew the contract of the agency that employs the workers. It expired on April 30. It has been reported that YV Subba Reddy, the chairman of the temple’s trust, had said that the firm supplying the manpower was told that their services were discontinued. He added, “Normally, fresh tenders would have been called by now for awarding of the contract to the agency which bids the lowest amount for manpower supply. Because of the lockdown, the TTD trust board could not meet and finalise the tender.”

Meanwhile, TTD’s official spokesman T Ravi has said that, “Everything was done as per the rules. Moreover, there is no work for these workers now, because of the lockdown, all guest houses are closed.” In view of the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19,

Fair enough. When the body generating the wealth isn’t generating any, firing workers is logical. Or is it?

Is it really fair that one of the richest temples in the world, that possesses wealth of around 20 billion dollars/₹13,60,99,90,00,000, gets an annual donation of ₹650 crores and makes 11 million dollars/₹75,00,00,000 from selling its laddus alone, cannot “afford” the upkeep of its contractual workers in the middle of a pandemic? Not even for an extra month or two of no work? Makes one wonder what happened to all the funds that poured in from the average 30-40 million devotees visiting here annually, in the hope that their faith in this all-powerful shrine will see them through in their time of need and despair?

The retrenched workers for whom TTD’s decision came as a rude shock, gathered at the temple trust board’s head office in Tirupati to protest. Their prospects, however, seem bleak.

For the first time in 128 years, the Tirupati Tirumala temple has been shut for pilgrims, owing to the pandemic.

A short distance away from the Tirumala hills, in Telangana, an Adivasi teenager – Bontha Sai Kumar, who is a sanitation worker with the state, has donated two months’ salary to the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund (CMRF). His donation amount was ₹17,000. Which means this Utnoor sanitation worker’s monthly salary is about ₹8,500. Another like him is Edumekala Alivelu. A sanitation worker with the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation, who asked to meet with the Telangana Minister KT Rama Rao and presented him with a cheque for ₹10,000 from her salary, to donate to the CMRF. Alivelu’s monthly salary is ₹12,000.

Hold these facts.

Back at Tirumala, the munificence of the temple’s devotees finds innumerable mentions in history: The generosity of Queen Samavai, of the Pallava dynasty, who donated precious jewels and 23 acres of land; the many Chola Kings who embellished it with riches. Even until a few months ago, there were enough and many patrons and lofty donations to this shrine.

But for the 1,300 contractual workers, none of this really matters.

I, for one, am certain. I’d rather repose my money and my faith in the likes of Bontha, Alivelu, and the million other frontline workers, healthcare professionals, police personnel and administrative authorities, who are neck deep trying to serve our people to the best of their abilities – wages, remuneration and risk-to-life notwithstanding. My fate and my faith are safe and secure in their trusty hands.