The Supreme Court observed that in cases where a party invoking writ jurisdiction has been a participant in the tender process, courts should be slow and cautious in exercising the power of judicial review.

The court upheld the Travancore Dewasom Board’s decision to locally procure cardamoms for preparation of Aravana Prasadam in Sabarimala Temple, observing that there was no illegality or arbitrariness in awarding the contract.

The Bench took note of the urgency for the preparation of bhog/prasad and the fact that the Board did invite bids for tender twice. However, since the Board itself took a decision that the Aravanam Prasadam will not be distributed, the Bench directed that the stock presently existing will have to be destroyed as per the appropriate procedure as indicated by the State Government.

The Court noted that the matter though connected with divine blessing in the form of prasad or bhog, the case was about aggressive competing business interests - for supply of 7000 kilograms of cardamom for making Aravana Prasadam.

A bench of Justice AS Bopanna and Justice PS Narasimha while categorically observing that the real grievance in the matter was about the grant of contract in favour of respondent no. 2 (local seller), the bench noted that the High Court should not have entertained the petition on behalf of an interested person who sought to convert a judicial review proceeding for enhancing personal gain.

“…This writ petition also challenged the manner in which the cardamom was sourced. We cannot lose sight of the fact that the appellant-Board initially tried to purchase cardamom by issuing tenders and calling for bids, not just once, but twice over. However, these tenders were cancelled since none of the bidder’s supplied cardamom of appropriate quality. It is in these compelling circumstances, considering the impending festive season and the imminent need to prepare a humungous quantity of Aravana Prasadam, that the appellant-Board invoked the urgency clause in its regulations and authorised the Chief Executive Officer of the Sabarimala Temple to procure cardamom from local sources. Thus, it cannot be said that the decision is arbitrary, irrational or unreasonable. There is neither arbitrariness nor malice in the decision of the appellant-Board as all the prospective bidders were given a fair chance as the notice to purchase cardamom was published on the notice board”, the bench observed.

"The cardamom samples submitted by the bidders were then tested in a nearby lab, which was also established by the Commissioner of Food Safety as per an order of the High Court. Thereafter, price negotiations were conducted, and respondent no. 2 was given supply orders after quoting the lowest rates. We are of the opinion that the decision of the appellant Board is legal, fair and transparent. For the above reasons, we are of the view that the High Court committed an error in entertaining the writ petition filed by respondent no. 1", the bench further noted in the judgment.

The Travancore Devaswom Board appealed against a the High Court’s order, which allowed a writ petition filed by the respondent company regarding a contract for sourcing raw material for the preparation of Aravana Prasadam in the Sabarimala Temple. The High Court's decision included the confirmation of an order restraining the distribution of Aravana Prasadam and the direction for prosecution of the appellant-Board for violation of the Food Safety and Standards Act, amongst other directives.

The appellant-Board manages several temples in southern India, including the Sabarimala Temple, and is responsible for the preparation and distribution of Aravana Prasadam. In 2021-2022, the respondent company was the successful bidder and supplied cardamom to the appellant-Board. Pertinently, tenders for cardamom procurement for the period from November 1, 2022 to September 30, 2023 were issued but cancelled due to cardamom containing pesticides beyond permissible limits and the Respondent had participated in these tenders.

However, noting the urgency the appellant procured the raw material locally without tendering, where respondent no. 2 was given supply orders for cardamom. Pursuant to which, samples submitted by respondent no. 2 were found with pesticides beyond the permissible threshold.

Accordingly, respondent no. 1 filed a writ petition seeking re-analysis of the cardamom purchased and cancellation of the local purchase. The High Court then directed re-examination of the cardamom samples, which were deemed 'unsafe' through various reports, thus restraining the distribution of Aravana Prasadam and directed the sealing of the warehouse where it was stored. Appellant-Board filed an application seeking permission to draw samples for analysis, which was dismissed by the Court.

Subsequently, the Court affirmed the interim order and directed the destruction of seized stock, initiating appropriate criminal proceedings. Thereafter, the Supreme Court issued notice on May 15, 2023, and stayed the impugned orders and through the same order, FSSAI was directed to get an analysis of the Aravana Prasadam and file a report before the Court.

The FSSAI in its report suggested that the pesticides mentioned in the analytical report were below limit of quantification and was satisfactory. “Microbiological parameters conforms to ready to eat grain products and is not substandard. Based on the above analytical report it is fit for consumption”, the relevant portion read.

“…While in temples and gurudwaras, prasad or bhog may be an essential part of their religion, it is not uncommon for other places of worship to serve some food, toast or drink as a religious offering. As of 2019, it is believed that India has a place of worship for every 400 people. While in most of these religious places, food is prepared and served at a large scale on special occasions, there are hundreds of temples and gurudwaras, which serve tens of 2 thousands of devotees twice every day. Several temples and gurudwaras have their own unique and traditional way of preparing the prasad or bhog like the Laddu of Tirupati and Karah Prasad of the Golden Temple at Amritsar…”, the first paragraphs of the judgment read.

Cause Title: The Travancore Devaswom Board Ayyappa Spices & Ors. [Neutral Citation: 2024 INSC 183]

Click here to read/download the Judgment