'Sale' of Puri Dharmasala Land Snowballs Into Political Controversy

Opposition parties and activists say the Puri administration is only the caretaker of the land and cannot sell the Bagala Dharmasala's property.

Bhubaneswar: The controversy over the alleged sale of a part of Puri’s historic Bagala Dharmasala, a hospice built in 1905 by a Jagannath devotee who later handed it over to the then district collector to provide cheap accommodation to the visiting pilgrims, is snowballing with BJP and Congress decrying the move.

The leaders of these parties have demanded immediate cancellation of the sale deeds made in favour of six lodge owners of the temple town. Protests over the issue have also drawn support from social activists, one of whom has moved the Orissa high court. While top state officials have found it advisable to keep quiet, the Puri administration has clarified that it was not a case of sale as was being made out. Instead, those people who gave their land for the ambitious Puri heritage corridor project have been sought to be rehabilitated with the allocation of a small part of the dharmasala’s vacant land, the administration said.

“Only a piece of vacant land (12.23%) has been utilised for the purpose of rehabilitation and resettlement for those who have given their land for temple development,” said a clarification note issued by the Puri administration.

But this contention of the administration has been rejected by the opposition parties as well as social activist Jagannath Bastia, who has challenged the move in the high court. “There are sale deeds to prove that the land has been sold. How can they claim that it is a case of land-for-land rehabilitation?” asks Bastia.

Indeed, the Puri administration itself has admitted in its clarification that out of 27 lodge owners displaced by the heritage project ‒ for which several buildings within a 75 metre radius of the Jagannath temple were demolished ‒ six have so far opted for land as settlement assistance to compensate their loss.

The state revenue department on June 5 granted permission for the execution of sale deeds for transfer of land to them, which was made on the payment of benchmark value. “With money involved, it is a clear case of sale, which is why sale deeds had to be made. The district collector is only a caretaker of the dharmasala property and has no right to sell it,” asserts Bastia.

Rejuvenation drive

Named after Babu Kankeyalal Bagala, the man who constructed it in 1905, the dharmasala, located barely 300 metres from the 12th century Jagannath temple, is a sprawling property spread over 2.738 acres. Later he donated the building and the attached land to the Lodging House Fund Committee, a government body headed by the Puri collector which was constituted under the Bihar and Orissa Places of Pilgrimage Act, 1920.

The dharmasala originally had 56 rooms and nine huge dormitories to provide shelter to poor pilgrims. The Lodging House Fund Committee added another 18 rooms to the structure.

In 2016-17, the India Tourism Development Corporation had demolished a portion of the dharmasala to reconstruct it with financial support from the Centre under the Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual Augmentation Drive (PRASAD) scheme. The plan was to rebuild the dilapidated hospice with a new name, Jagannath Bishramasthali at the cost of Rs 18 crore.

However, before the project could be completed, the Odisha government repealed the Bihar and Orissa Places of Pilgrimage Act, 1920 and the Lodging House Fund Committee, along with the dharmasala and its land, was merged with the Puri municipality. Sources said that last year, the land was transferred to the state Revenue and Disaster Management Department.

Jagannath temple in Puri. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Abhishek Barua CC BY SA 3.0

Things moved fast after that, with the state government pursuing the Puri heritage corridor project for the beautification of the temple town under the Rs 3,208 crore ‘Augmentation of Basic Amenities and Development of Heritage and Architecture’ (ABADHA) scheme. As part of this, several structures within the 75-metre radius of the Jagannath temple were demolished amidst protest from the local residents.

The people who lost land and their dwellings were promised suitable compensation. Sources said that around 35 decimal (12.23%) of the Bagala dharmasala land was sold between August 5 and August 12 to six lodge owners who were evicted during the demolition drive around the 12th-century shrine.

Political storm

Major opposition parties and activists accuse Puri collector Balwant Singh of violating the law by sanctioning the transfer of the land from the Puri municipality to the Revenue and Disaster Management department and then selling a part of it.

“The dharmasala land was relinquished in favour of the Revenue and Disaster Management department, which is not acceptable. This was followed by an equally questionable move like the sale of a portion of this land. The Puri collector, as only a caretaker of this land, cannot make the sale,” said former Congress MLA from Balikuda, Lalatendu Mohapatra.

The Puri administration’s move was also criticised by BJP national spokesperson Sambit Patra, who unsuccessfully contested the Puri Lok Sabha seat in 2019. State BJP general secretary Golak Mohapatra described the step as unfortunate, saying that the dharmasala meant for the accommodation of poor pilgrims from different parts of the country had been turned into a commercial proposition. “If the administration wanted to compensate land losers with land, it could have chosen any other place for allotment. Why this iconic hospice which has been providing cheap accommodation to pilgrims coming to Puri from different parts of the country?” asked Mohapatra.

On the other hand, the Biju Janata Dal’s leaders like Puri MP Pinaki Mishra and party general secretary Bijay Nayak have jumped to the defence of the administration. Nayak, in fact, slammed the opposition for trying to make a mountain out of a molehill. “At a time when chief minister Naveen Patnaik is trying hard to turn Puri into a world class heritage city, some people are deliberately trying to create hurdles in the path of the project. The protests over the issue are politically motivated but people will see through them,” asserted Nayak.