Here in the temple town of Tirupati, the news is all about the appointment, by the Andhra Pradesh government, of a 'jumbo' Board of 81 members for the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) Board. The BJP is particularly vocal in its criticism demanding that the temple management should be handed over to "Hindu religious organisations." The reported scandals of financial irregularities in the land deals by the Trust formed for the Ayodhya Ram temple does, however, act as a dampener. Recently, the BJP has unleashed a communal campaign alleging that the Chief Minister is promoting conversions by encouraging churches to be built in the temple town area. The slogan they had given for their aggressive campaign in the Tirupati Lok Sabha by-election a few months ago was "Tirumala Rakshinchalante, BJP Tirupati Gelavalanthe" (To save Tirumala, BJP has to win Tirupati). The electorate thought otherwise. The BJP candidate lost her deposit.
There is another more valid and relevant criticism of the 'jumbo' Board. This comes from representatives of approximately 20,000 workers employed by the TTD management, of whom 13,500 are workers on contract, or through outsourcing, deprived of a decent wage. At a relay hunger strike which has lasted longer than 300 days, Forest Workers representatives say, "They have money to spend on increasing the numbers on the Board with all the benefits, but employees issues are being ignored." There are representatives of other sections of employees also present: ladoo-makers, barbers, cleaners, canteen servers, cooks, gardeners, ticket collectors - the whole army of workers and employees who work hard to ensure that the services offered to devotees by the Board run smoothly.
I had met the workers and employees representatives in 2014 a few months after the BJP government under Modi was sworn in. There was hope among them that the promises made of special status to Andhra Pradesh, and specifically of upgrading of the amenities in Tirupati to develop it as a world-class tourist and pilgrimage destination, would improve their situation. This time when I meet them, they are vocal in their anger and disappointment. One says, "The only development we have seen is that Tirupati airport has been handed over to Adani!" The town with a population of around five lakhs is badly maintained with poor roads, poorer drainage, water supply only once in every three or four days during summer; in the second wave of the Covid pandemic, the poor health facilities were highlighted when 25 patients died due to lack of oxygen in the town's biggest hospital which serves the entire region. No funds have arrived from the central government. Before his election, Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy had also assured employees that their grievances would be addressed. But no action has been taken.
The temple situated in the hills of Tirumala has substantial assets donated by devotees over the years. An assessment in 2020 put the fixed deposits at 14,000 crore rupees and more than 9,000 kilograms of gold. The temple also owns huge properties, not just in Andhra but in many other states, which includes around 8,000 acres of land donated by devotees. The Chairman of the TTD estimated the expected revenue this year at close to 3,000 crores of which the cash donations from devotees is projected at 1,131 crore rupees. The number of devotees is estimated on an average at 70,000-1 lakh a day which goes up to ten lakhs on special days. Of course the pandemic has affected the flow of pilgrims. The services offered include free meals, free tonsures, cheap accommodation in the hostels and dormitories run by the Management. Yet, the employees of this rich temple suffer the most. Their poor service conditions are scandalous by any standards, with labour laws and the principal of equal pay for equal work blatantly violated.
To give a few examples: the famed Tirupati ladoo is made by cooks whose first eligibility is that they must be Brahmins. Why should this casteist practice continue? But these Brahmin ladoo-makers themselves have legitimate complaints. There are around 680 cooks, of whom just 72 are regular employeesof the TTD, drawing a salary of 30,000 to 60,000 depending on their seniority. The rest are all on contract earning just around 18,000 rupees even though many of them have been employed for the last two decades. They make about three and a half to five lakh ladoos a day. Next time, those of you who are believers find yourself blessed with the Prasadam of the Tirupati ladoo, think of those who make them.
The barbers are also exploited. While devotees tonsure their heads to fulfill a pledge they may have made to Lord Balaji, what of those who make it possible? There are 1,270 barbers employed by the TTD. Of these, only 410 are regular employees getting a salary starting from 30,000 to 50,000 rupees, based on seniority. But those on contract get just 11 rupees per head they tonsure. Even a barber working in a small village would scoff at such a low rate, but this is what the richest temple management pays to its barbers. Such unfair low payments on a piece-rate basis forces barbers to work non-stop like machines. In a good month, a barber may be able to earn 10,000 to 14,000 rupees. During the pandemic, their earnings fell to a fourth of that. The conditions of work are also unjust, illustrated by the experience of female tonsurers who do not even have a separate changing room.
The complex is large, stretching over 16 acres. The worst situation is that of the approximately 8,000 cleaning and sanitation workers, mainly Dalits. Working to ensure that hygienic and cleanliness standards are maintained, they do a phenomenal job but are paid a pittance of less than 10,000 rupees a month without any social security guarantees.
The BJP had raked up another controversy earlier in 2019 that non-Hindus should not be employed. In response, the Chief Secretary of the state government shockingly warned all employees that there would be a vigilance check as to whether they are Hindus or not. 44 non-Hindu employees working as sanitary staff, gardeners, nurses went to court and got a stay order against their removal. The court held that in jobs related to non-religious affairs, there should be no discrimination. In fact, the vast majority of those employed by the TTD are Hindu. But today, those who demand that only Hindus should be employed are conspicuous by their silence when it comes to the terrible working conditions of these thousands of workers, almost all of whom are Hindu, employed to serve devotees at the richest temple in the world. Their plight stands testimony to the bankruptcy of a politics that exists in their name - a "Hindu Rashtra" where workers have no rights.
Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.
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