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Last Updated : Oct 13, 2018 04:40 PM IST | Source: Moneycontrol.com

Durga Puja in West Bengal: Can a state government 'gift' funds for religious celebrations?

A PIL was filed by advocate Sourav Dutta, claiming that it was a dole to puja committees and had no public purpose

Aakriti Handa @aakriti_handa

The Supreme Court on October 12 issued a notice to the West Bengal government for granting Rs 28 crore to over 28,000 Durga Puja committees across the state.

A bench of Justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta passed the order while hearing an urgent petition filed by advocate Sourav Dutta challenging the Calcutta High Court’s decision to not interfere in the case.

What is the case?

On September 10, West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee had declared that Rs 10,000 would be given to each of the 28,000 puja committees across the state, costing the government a total of Rs 28 crore.

Describing it as a “gift” and a move aimed at “community development”, Banerjee said the cost will be borne by different departments of the state government such as consumer affairs and tourism.

Banerjee said she had also directed Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation (CESC) to increase the discount offered to community puja organisers from 20 to 23 per cent. "I will also ask the Kolkata MC, Urban Development and Fire Departments not to levy any licence fee," she added.

A public interest litigation (PIL) was filed by advocate Sourav Dutta, claiming that it was a dole to puja committees and had no public purpose.

However, the Calcutta High Court on October 10 refused to interfere with the state government’s decision. A division bench comprising acting Chief Justice Debasish Kar Gupta and Justice Sampa Sarkar ruled that the legislature is the appropriate forum to decide on expenditure by the state.

What is the government’s argument?

Advocate General Kishore Dutta, representing the state government of West Bengal, submitted before the high court bench that the funds are to be used for assisting the police under its traffic safety campaign, for sanitation and public safety.

He also added that a taxpayer cannot question the modus operandi of expenditure, claiming that this is the prerogative of the legislature.

Senior counsel Saktinath Mukherjee, also appearing for the West Bengal government, submitted that the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) or the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) can scrutinize the expenditure of the government, adding that the courts have no role to play at this stage.

What is the petitioner saying?

The petitioner, Sourav Dutta, challenged the Calcutta High Court’s decision in the apex court, claiming that providing funds to puja committees is a clear violation of the secular structure of the Constitution of India. The Supreme Court accepted his plea.

Pressing that there are no guidelines on how the money is to be tendered and expended, the petitioners also demanded that the plea be rendered infructuous, since Durga Puja festivities begin tomorrow.

Can a state government ‘donate’ funds for religious activities?

Technically, no. Using state funds, which comprise the taxes of bonafide citizens, offends the spirit of secularism under Article 27 of the Constitution of India. This Article mandates that no citizen would be compelled by the state to pay any taxes for promotion or maintenance of particular religion or religious institutions.

Besides, it also violates Article 14 and 15 of the Indian Constitution.

A similar precedent may be cited to buttress this notion. Last year, the Bombay High Court had ordered that municipal corporations should ensure that their funds are not used for religious ceremonies.

The court said it was not the municipal corporation’s duty to provide amenities and facilities, at its own cost, to celebrate religious and other festivals. The high court, however, added that it was the duty of the municipal corporation to make arrangements for collection, removal, treatment and disposal of sewage and garbage generated by such festivals, The Indian Express has reported.

 Could this be a political move? 

Mamata’s move is widely being perceived by the Opposition – the BJP and the CPI(M) – as an attempt to dispose the allegations that she is partisan towards the minorities in the state. Dilip Ghosh, BJP state president, accused Banerjee of “making it up to the Hindu voters for last year’s debacle”. Ghosh was referring to the incident where the Banerjee-led administration imposed restrictions on immersion of Durga idols because the festival coincided with Muharram processions.

Similarly, CPI(M) leader Rabin Deb described the move as “competitive communalism”, saying she is competing with the BJP ahead of the election year.
First Published on Oct 13, 2018 04:40 pm
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