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RTI queries: Modi’s sandalwood gift to Nepal temple tops list

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sandalwood gift to Pashupatinath Temple in August appears to be among the most asked questions through the Right to Information (RTI) Act, as listed on the website of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).

The questions range from the cost of the 2,500 kg sandalwood that was presented to the temple to the state where trees were chopped for this gift. There are queries on whether saplings have been planted ifor cutting the trees and if such a gift was lawful, too. Queries on gifts received from foreign sources by Modi and Manmohan Singh, when he was the PM, also top the charts.

Replying to a series of such questions, MEA has put the price of 2,500 kg of sandalwood at Rs 1.88 crore and the cost of transporting it to Kathmandu at Rs 2,85,000, making it total to Rs 1.91 crore. This gift was given on behalf of the Government of India, from the budget of MEA, to Pashupatinath Area Development Trust, according to RTI replies to many questions on the matter. The government has revealed that the primary source of the sandalwood was trees is Tamil Nadu, but no information has been given on whether saplings have been planted in place of the felled sandalwood trees.

Even as export of sandalwood in any form, excluding finished handicraft and machine-made sandalwood products, is prohibited from India, the Directorate-General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) permitted the gift to Pashupatinath “as a special case”, according to a commerce ministry office memorandum issued way back in March 2013, when the UPA government was in power at the Centre. Modi visited Nepal more than a year later, from August 3 to 4.

“Keeping in view the long-standing historical and cultural relations between India and Nepal, the Government of India gifted 2,500 kg of sandalwood to Pashupatinath Temple,” according to the MEA.

As for the gifts that PM Modi has received from foreign sources, only three are listed so far in the RTI replies on the MEA site. These are a model of a boat (with no commercial value), a painting estimated at Rs 4,500 and a silver memento for Rs 25,000. The three gifts came from June 25 to 27, 2014.

Although information on gifts to religious organisations by former prime ministers is not available yet, the replies show that Manmohan Singh, when he was the PM, got 383 gifts from foreign sources between May 2004 and June 2013. The list after June 2013 and till Modi took charge as the PM in May 2014 is not available.

Among the gifts that Singh received as PM, the most expensive one was on May 11, 2010 – a jewellery set worth Rs 48.93 lakh. On the same day, he got a box containing a sword, a table watch, a pen, prayer beads and a “box of yellow metal” priced at Rs 20.91 lakh. The other expensive gifts that Singh got from foreign sources include a framed replica of the royal emblem made of fine gold and a miniature of the emblem priced at Rs 10 lakh. His other presents range from watches, pens, handicams, LCD TV and music systems to saris, carpets, pillow covers, bedsheets, tea sets, dinner sets, wine, books, musical instruments, and crystals.

While all gifts received by PMs are disclosed, names of the persons and countries giving the presents are kept under wraps as per the disclosure norms of the government.

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