HC issues notices to Siddhivinayak Trust, Maha govt over funds transfer

The Bombay high court on Friday issued notices to the Maharashtra government and Mumbai’s Siddhivinayak Temple Trust in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) challenging latter’s transfer of Rs 10 crore to the former for the fight against Covid-19 pandemic and the state’s Shiv Bhojan Scheme for subsidised food for the poor. It has directed them to file their respective replies within four weeks. The court granted one week thereafter to the petitioner to file rejoinders to the replies and posted the PIL for further hearing in the first week of October.

A bench of chief justice Dipankar Datta and justice Revati Mohite-Dere said “prima face case was made out for admitting the PIL”.

Petitioner Leela Ranga, a lawyer, has questioned two recent transfers of Rs 5 crore each and said the trust has “donated” about Rs 30 crore to the state government.

Ranga has called the transfers illegal and impermissible under provisions of the Shree Siddhivinayak Temple Trust (Prabhadevi) Act, 1980, which governs the trust’s functioning.

Ranga’s lawyer, Pradeep Sancheti, said Rs 5 crore each have been transferred to the government for the fight against the pandemic and for the Shiv Bhojan Scheme. He cited the Act’s section 18 and added the trust’s funds can be utilised only for the maintenance, management and administration of the temple. Sancheti added the section allows use of surplus funds only for development of the trust properties like rest houses for devotees and for maintenance of educational institutions, schools, hospitals or dispensaries.

Sancheti said the law does not allow transfer of the trust funds to the government. He pointed out the proposals for transferring the amounts have been initiated by the government and not even by the trust. “This is systematic way of transferring the trust funds to the government,” he said, urging the court to pass an interim order to stop any further transfers.

A bench of chief justice Dipankar Datta and justice Revati Mohite-Dere refused to consider the prayer, saying no one appeared on behalf of the temple trust. It added the court can direct transfer of the funds back to the trust if, after final hearing, it finds that the transfers were illegal.

The court rejected Sancheti’s request to restrain the government from renewing appointment of certain trustees, whose terms are ending this month. Sancheti claimed the chairman of the temple trust has got extension of three years after the transfers under challenge in their plea.

“This is also not the stage for appointing a retired judge,” the bench said referring to the petitioner’s interim prayer for appointment of a retired high court judge to inquire into the affairs of the trust in view of “impermissible transfers”.

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