On the Thiruvananthapuram treasure

Private property, national heritage and the state’s exchequer

I made these comments in an email exchange a few days ago, and thought they are worth sharing on this blog.

I do not agree with those who argue that the Thiruvananthapuram treasure must be used for ‘the social good’. The treasure is the property of the Temple or the royal family. Other than through normal taxation, government cannot claim it.

I’d qualify this: if it is so determined that it contains what can be considered as national and civilisational heritage, the State has grounds to intervene so that it is preserved for future generations. This need not mean acquisition, but can mean a set of rules that bind the owner to treat the property in certain ways.

Therefore, there is no case to monetise the wealth and treat it as a budgetary resource. The philosophical reason is that it is an inter-generational asset. We can’t break down the Taj Mahal and use the marble to construct low-cost housing for the poor.

What is being implicitly proposed by many people is that the wealth must be expropriated, or at least nominal compensation paid to acquire it. This will be a net gain for the State, which should then be converted into budgetary resources to be spent on various things. This amounts to the government breaking down the Taj Mahal and using the money from selling the marble to cover its fiscal deficit.