Instances of mismanagement

The expert committee referred to earlier had by 2012 submitted four reports stating that the inventory of the artefacts contained in the vaults was nearing completion. In its hearing held on 23 August 2012, the Court felt that for better appreciation of the issues involved and the controversy being generated, there was need for an amicus curiae to be appointed to assist the Court. Gopal Subramaniam, senior advocate and former solicitor general of India, was approved for the role by the Court.

Subramaniam filed a 577-page report alleging malpractices in the administration of the temple. According to him, the authorities had failed to perform their ethical duties by opening many bank accounts and trusts, and had not filed income tax returns for the past ten years. He alleged that Vault B was opened despite a previous ruling of the Supreme Court prohibiting it. The report states,

The large amount of gold and silver, the discovery of which was a shock, is a singular instance of mismanagement. The presence of a gold plating machine is also yet another unexplained circumstance. This discovery raises a doubt of the organized extraction by persons belonging to the highest echelons. There appears to be resistance on the part of the entire State apparatus in effectively addressing the said issues. The lack of adequate investigation by the police is a telling sign that although Thiruvananthapuram is a city in the state of Kerala, parallelism based on monarchic rule appears to predominate the social psyche.

The amicus curiae also sought a detailed audit of the temple accounts on the grounds that revenues were not being deposited into the temple coffers and proper registers were not being maintained. The Court, on his recommendation, ordered the appointment of a former CAG (myself) to do a special audit of the temple accounts.

Inadequacies in the temple administration

The special audit commenced in June 2014 with an audit team comprising a retired IAS officer, a retired deputy accountant general and five former senior audit officers from the office of the accountant general, Kerala. It was not an easy process, as the temple did not have a well-defined administrative structure and neither did it follow well-defined financial or accounting procedures.
The entire arrangement was ad hoc, with sundry persons being entrusted with specific tasks from time to time.

None of these persons were qualified in any of the areas critical to temple management, such as inventory management, accounting procedures, cash management, bank transactions, security and safekeeping issues, and so on. With respect to the period prior to 2008–09, complete records and relevant documents were not available and hence a thorough audit could not be conducted.

I proceed to describe some of the inadequacies that were noticed during the audit,11 which point to ineffective management and lack of a transparent and accountable system in the temple administration, which has led to allegations of pilferage of the treasure accumulated over centuries. All kinds of wild allegations have been made about people who could have been complicit in the pilferage.

In the absence of any concrete information, it will not only be unfair but very unwise to make assertions. Hence, what is being described are issues that came to light from pure perusal of records.

Opening of Vault B

Vault B is the most intriguing of the six vaults in the temple, with so much mystique surrounding it. Whilst the other five have been opened, it is often claimed that this vault has been left unopened
11Special audit of the SPST and its properties and for centuries. The superstition surrounding it says its opening will cause suffering and large-scale distress, with ill omen befalling the person who opens it.

Notwithstanding these superstitions and contrary to common belief, an inspection of the mahazar register revealed that Vault B had been opened at least seven times between July 1990 and December 2002. There is, however, vehement and authoritative denial of this. Such issues add to the mystique.

This fact of the records showing Vault B was opened was mentioned in our audit findings. The observation got into the public domain after the audit report was submitted to the Supreme Court. Members of the royal family must have read about it. Subsequently, a news item appeared in Malayala Manorama, a Kerala daily, quoting Princess Lakshmi Bayi as clarifying that the report was referring to the outer door of Kallara (vault) B, which was opened in 2011 by the Supreme Court-appointed observers.

It is speculated that this vault is the largest and because it is guarded by serpents, may contain treasures far beyond what the others contain. The fact remains that there are claims and denials regarding the opening of this vault. Permission has been sought from the Court to open it, but no direction has been forthcoming. Its contents and the superstition surrounding it continue to fuel wild imaginings.

Purification of gold

The temple did not have a system of ascertaining the weight and purity of gold and silver articles before handing them over to jewellers for melting and purification for ornamentation works. For example, the weight of the gold taken out from the cellars for melting, according to the weight recorded by the gold work contractors in a particular transaction, was 887 kg. On melting and purification of the gold, the pure gold returned was only 624 kg.

The loss in the process was 263 kg, which was nearly 30 per cent, indicating that there is no benchmark for the percentage of loss that should be permitted in the purification process. What was returned by the jewellers after purification was accepted, on trust, as accurate. This obviously led to speculation and allegations.

In another transaction, it was revealed in the audit that 14.629 kg of 24-carat gold rakes and 1.938 kg of pure gold (since converted into pure gold) were issued to the contractor between June and December 2010 for gold ornamentation works in respect of Ashtadikpalakars (guardians of the eight directions) on the roof of the Ottakkal mandapam (a single-stone platform). All this gold and semi-finished work has not been received back from the contractor, despite the passage of about ten years.

Ornamental precious metal utensils

Each category of articles made of precious metals was assigned a separate serial number. Gold pots bearing numbers from 1 to 1000 were used for festivals during the period up to July 2002. Thereafter, the pots that were taken out bore numbers from 1001. The fact that the number borne by one of the pots taken out on 1 April 2011 was 1988 was indicative of the reality that there were at least 1,988 pots in the cellars.

After melting 822 gold pots for meeting the requirement of gold for ornamentation works, there should have been at least 1,166 gold pots in stock. However, the numbers assigned to the gold pots were from 12-4-1 to 12-4-397, which indicates that there were only 397 gold pots. There was thus a shortage of 769 gold pots with an aggregate weight of 776 kg.
There was another instance of 32.86 kg of gold articles and 570.34 kg of silver lying unaccounted for in the treasurer’s room.

Retention of gold and silver articles for years, without due issuance and acceptance records, in the custody of the treasurer without being insured, apart from the risk involved, gives rise to the possibility of theft/mismanagement. It is certainly not prudent inventory management.

Unauthorised opening and photographing of contents

It was revealed in the course of audit that, perhaps to create a permanent record of the items available in the vaults, the then trustee decided to make an album of the valuables. The C and D vaults were opened and 1,022 articles were photographed (including 397 pots) in August 2007. However, the whereabouts of the album and the photographs are not known.

The temple authorities disowned any knowledge or possession of these photographs, negatives or album. They are not even aware of the agency that did the photography or who met the cost of such photography. At the same time, certain photographs, purportedly pertaining to the temple, are available on the internet.

There are many stories about attempts to clandestinely sell some of the artefacts. There may be no truth in them. There is no needle-pointing at any particular person in connection with these purported attempts but these facts emerging from the audit lend grist to the rumour mills.

Properties of the temple and trust

There is no proper consolidated record of the properties owned by the temple, or which of its properties have been leased. Even where records are available, they are not accurate. The audit team found that the temple authorities were not even aware of encroachment on their property. A spot verification revealed that the area in the temple’s possession was much less than the 5.72 acres it was supposed to possess as per records.

Secondly, even for property owned by it and leased out, there were no lease/rent agreement. The temple was thus not in a position to enforce any lease or rent agreements. No realisation of rent or enhancements could be effected from small shops and buildings in the temple perimeter due to lack of lease/rent agreements. The amount of rent arrears from twenty-six occupants alone was Rs 19.25 lakh per annum. These occupants seemed to be defaulters from 2008 onwards, but even this was not verifiable.

Thirdly, an amount of Rs 31,998.68, fixed in 1970–71, was receivable by the temple as an allowance from the state government. The government of Tamil Nadu had enhanced this allowance tenfold in 2008 (for properties owned by the temple in what is the state of Tamil Nadu now) but no attempt had been made by the temple administration to get it enhanced by the government of Kerala.

These are some of the issues that seem to have beset the temple and its administration over the years, thereby leading to the conclusion that its management is lax and that it has consequently suffered severe loss of revenue, valuables and real estate.

Excerpted with permission from Rethinking Good Governance: Holding to Account India’s Public Institutions, Vinod Rai, Rupa Publications.