India's Windfall

August 4th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

Distribute, or re-bury? The fate of a $22 billion treasure trove hangs in the balance.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

It would seem like an easy problem to have: what to do with a newly discovered $22 billion in booty?

In India, the discovery of a massive treasure trove has been anything but easy. Last month, an activist applied to courts in the southern state of Kerala to unlock a treasure vault in the 8th century temple of Sri Padmanabhaswamy, alleging financial mismanagement. At issue, temples and other religious institutions currently receive tax-free status, making them veritable vaults of tax-free wealth.

As the Hindustan Times’ Lalita Panicker wrote, “the treasures are said to make the British crown jewels look like bargain basement trinkets.” Among the finds: winding ropes of gold weighing up to 25 pounds each, solid gold statues of Vishnu, and also secular objects, including gold and silver bullion, Napoleonic-era coins and other artifacts, along with donations and war booty collected by the royal family that once ruled this part of India. Ownership of the hoard doesn’t seem to be in question. Descendants of the royal family, led by Sri Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma (whose family gave the gems to the temple’s deity) still control the trust that manages the temple, according to The New York Times.

“The wealth belongs to the temple,” Oommen Chandy, Kerala’s chief minister, told the Times. He’s not alone in thinking that way. An article in India’s Independent presents the debate India’s leaders currently face: if the government opens up the vault and uses the riches to provide comfort to the poor, such a move would likely antagonize religious supporters who believe the treasures should stay put. So while they could be used to establish universities and wipe out Kerala’s $16 billion in government debt, the state is currently hamstrung about what to do next. Adding to the problem, the Times reports, the fortune is actually costing Kerala money, and it is now “dipping into its limited coffers to protect the temple by backing up the temple’s dozen security guards with 100 police offers and 50 commandos outside.”

If you had the power to decide, would you honor the original intent of the treasure and put it back into the ground, or apply the wealth to universities, the national debt and infrastructure?