Virus puts Gurdwaras in Financial Trouble

Pic:Jonathan Cardy CClicense

By Minreet Kaur

In common with other UK places of worship, Sikh gurdwaras have been shut since March and a report suggests that donations have fallen by 95 per cent, but the cost of running and providing the essential langar services, such as food for the needy, has increased.

Harmeet Singh, general-secretary of the Sri Guru Sigh Sabha Gurdwara in Southall, says they are charities and have financial reserves, but are burning through them. Lockdown, if it persists, will put them under more pressure.

There are 432,429 Sikhs in the UK, mainly in England, with as many as 320 gurdwaras.

Gurdwaras do not receive grants from the government. They rely on the donations and offerings provided by the congregation. Of that income, 90-95 per cent is in physical cash, when people pay their respects, for example, at weddings and prayer sermons.  This is the funding that has evaporated: people are reluctant to deal in cash during the Covid-19 crisis; and the only services taking place are funerals.

For Sikhs, donating 10 per cent of income is a core tenet of the faith, but as people lose jobs and struggle financially this becomes difficult, while demand for services like langar is increasing.

Very few gurdwaras receive standing orders for payment. In recent times gurdwaras have installed contactless payment systems, but these still require people to attend physically.

Larger gurdwaras are able to raise extra funds through letting property, but many tenants are struggling to pay. They have diversified income streams and had built up reserves. But the current crisis is unprecedented.

They plan in the future to start a range of initiatives and expand current services particularly focusing on the elderly, those with mental health conditions and substance misuse problems.

Costs can vary, and maintaining large buildings, utilities (kitchens use a lot of gas and electricity), costs of food supplies for the langar, education programs (Punjabi schools), community outreach work, sports facilities, day centres for the elderly, children’s classes etc., costs money.

While much of the work done in gurdwaras is by volunteers through seva (an act of service), gurdwaras may employ the granthis (who sing religious hymns), kitchen staff, admin staff, caretakers, teachers and community workers. Many are already using the furlough scheme.

Smaller gurdwaras cost £5,000 to £10,000 a month to run and larger ones up to £150,000.

Harmeet Singh said the larger gurdwaras would eventually raise money to keep going. But gurdwaras in towns with small populations may need to cut back on some of the services they can provide and reduce staff numbers. They may also have to merge with larger ones, or look to raise funds through disposing of excess property.

The greater fear is that people may not return once lockdown ends. Even if they do, functions such as weddings and family events will be smaller, which will all have a financial impact.

Many gurdwaras are run by trustees who tend to be older and retired and the lockdown and post-lockdown conditions may impact how effectively they can be run.

COMMENT

Sukhjeevan Singh, of Sikh Council UK said: “Areas of London and Birmingham are ‘hubs’ of the Sikh population. Many port towns such as Southampton and Bristol have also been traditional homes to early migrant families. The function of gurdwaras in the Sikh faith is different from other places of worship.

“Despite varying levels of faith and commitment the entire community is reliant on their services. All Sikh rites such as marriage and funerals, most celebrations and commemorations are held at the gurdwara. For example, a self-professed agnostic or non-believing person born into the faith would still utilise the Gurdwara with warm acceptance from the community.

“This is Sikh culture and can be difficult for others to understand. Sikh gurdwaras are usually managed on a voluntary basis by trustees with minimal employees and rely on the offerings of the congregation. The changes in lifestyle and age demographics of gurdwara trustees already pose risks to the future of gurdwara management.

“In lockdown, large gurdwaras in Southall, Birmingham, Gravesend and Leicester are reporting a more than 90 per cent decrease in income and a surge in costs due to increased voluntary work in the community and NHS. As the largest umbrella organisation of gurdwaras and Sikh organisations, the Sikh Council UK is finding it a tough job to respond to the uncertainty in the community with minimal state support to the faith sector.”

Harmeet Singh has provided some guidance to the gurdwaras across the UK on how to manage the financial situation: “Sri Guru Singh Sabha Southall is the largest gurdwara in the UK and has been in discussions with gurdwaras across the country during the Covid-19 lockdown,” he says. “We recognise that while we are fortunate to have a large congregation base that continues to support and fund our services, many of the gurdwaras in towns with smaller Sikh populations will struggle.

“During these difficult times, gurdwaras have been critical in helping the most vulnerable in society. Our community is incredibly generous, and I am confident they will rise to the challenge and support their gurdwaras.”