India, Seeking a Boost, Plans to Put Its ‘Idle Gold’ to Work

Mumbai, India — Just after 10:15 every night, the three stone goddesses of Mahalakshmi Temple are stripped of their finery — the gleaming masks, said to contain 17 pounds of gold; ropy gold necklaces; pendants shuddering with jewels.

The treasure is transported to a “strong room,” where it remains until morning alongside decades’ worth of offerings given to the deities. Sharadchandra V. Padhye, who heads the temple’s managing trust, would not give the value of what is kept in the room, but made it clear that it was vast.

“The lady goddesses are also receiving nose rings,” he said. “Ample nose rings we have got.”

In his mission to build India’s economy into one that could someday rival China’s, Prime Minister Narendra Modi would like to mobilize the roughly 20,000 tons of gold thought to be in private hands, 2,500 tons of it in major Hindu temples. Demand here is so high that gold imports have in recent years accounted for nearly 30 percent of India’s trade deficit, and many people prefer to keep it in the form of jewelry, making it difficult to trade or convert into cash.

Economists call it “idle gold,” and Mr. Modi’s team would like to see it used for trade and investment. In May, the government is expected to introduce a plan to induce Indians to deposit gold in banks, offering fixed interest rates for a “metal account.” There are also plans to issue gold bonds and, for the first time, to issue gold in the unsentimental but fungible form of a coin.

But it is an experiment that will run up against old habits and deep emotions. This month, though details of the plan were not yet public, spokesmen for some of India’s richest temples were already offering blustery opinions pro and con.

“These are habits that developed over hundreds and thousands of years,” Jayant Sinha, India’s minister of state for finance, said in an interview. He said temple trusts, in particular, had been forced to think like endowments, weighing strategies to protect their wealth.

“It’s a matter of both the commercial logic as well as the confidence people have in the government,” he said. “As far as interest is concerned, that is a classic case of getting the percentage right.”

Previous drives to monetize gold have mostly fallen flat. Analysts blame interest rates that were too low to attract large entities and a minimum gold deposit so high that it excluded small entities, like private households.

But the efforts also encountered visceral distrust of state interference with temple wealth, and some of that has emerged this week, including from right-wing Hindu organizations that are aligned with Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

A top official at the Vishway Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council, said the organization opposed any effort to monetize temple gold, despite “full support” for Mr. Modi’s government.

“For thousands of years, Hindu society has donated this gold to temples whose trusts have safeguarded it,” said Vyankatesh Abdeo, the organization’s all-India secretary. “Our wealth is in gold; the government’s evil eye is on this wealth. This is absolutely wrong, and we oppose this move. This wealth is God’s, not the government’s.”

Mr. Padhye, who heads the trust at the Mahalakshmi Temple, was similarly dismissive. He said donors gave jewelry to the deities in his temple out of a “feeling of attachment,” and would be upset if they learned their gifts had been taken away.

“We will not give up our gold,” he said. “Let the bank come, let anybody come; we will not change our position. Who am I to melt these ornaments that have been given by the devotees with emotion?”

Some temples seem ready to experiment, though.

On Tuesday, devotees were plunging forward in a crush of bodies at Shree Siddhivinayak Ganpati, thrusting offerings of flowers and sweets toward a black stone idol of the elephant-headed deity Ganesh. A woman stood facing the idol with closed eyes, lips moving, her face creased with pain. Outside, temple authorities were auctioning off donated gold jewelry to raise cash, which they said would be used for charitable purposes.

Narendra Murari Rane, chairman of the temple trust, said he was waiting to see whether the government offered favorable terms to those depositing gold in banks. His temple stores 348 pounds of gold in drawers in a storeroom, behind three bulletproof iron doors, and ringed with more than 1,000 surveillance cameras and 65 security guards.

“We will consider it,” he said of the plan. “If the result is better than our own auctions, maybe. We can only consider it if the profits are more.”

Soma Somasundaram, managing director in Mumbai of the World Gold Council, a market development organization for the international gold industry, said that he doubted many Indian temples would agree to melt down centuries-old jewelry, but that the new initiatives, especially the introduction of an Indian gold coin, could begin to profoundly shape the behavior of future gold buyers.

He said sustained efforts in the next few years could draw around 300 tons of gold, or the equivalent of $12 billion, into use as investable capital.

The auctioneer at Shree Siddhivinayak Ganpati temple, who kicked off bidding with a cry of “Long live Ganesh,” noted that the donations to the deity were, for the most part, transactional from the get-go, since most of the temple’s donors make offerings to hold up their end of a bargain with the deity.

“They ask for a wish from God,” said the auctioneer, Shashikant Kanvilkar. “That’s the moment when they tell God, ‘If my wish comes through, I will give you this particular thing.’ This temple is known to make your wishes come true. The gift is given after the deal is completed.”