The Indian’s attitude to his own history has always been rather enigmatic. Sensitiveness towards the past or the environment is certainly not a strong point, even among those who run the country, whether politicians or bureaucrats. Looking after important historical, cultural, aesthetic or environmentally important sites was seldom considered a priority until very recent times, and the worldwide movement to protect heritage and environmentally precious sites has been one of the main spurs to action within the country. While it is true that the impetus to protection provided by the UNESCO has greatly helped archaeologists, scholars and environmental campaigners, it is also the added prestige of having sites selected for the world heritage sites list that has somewhat changed the attitude of politicians and administrators here.
That the change of attitude is not total, and probably quite superficial, has been unfortunately proved by what is happening around the Taj Mahal. By itself, the Taj Mahal has a unique importance for Indians, simply because it is one of the best-known images — almost a logo — of India abroad. It is still the biggest tourist draw, its romantic history transcending cultural barriers and, of course, still magically beautiful, in spite of numerous depredations and damage through pollution. Its inclusion on the world heritage-site list is only to be expected. What cannot be expected, however, is the complete flouting of all rules laid down for the preservation of a heritage site by the very government that should be foremost in protecting it. The government of Uttar Pradesh is eagerly supporting the flurry of building and digging taking place around the Taj, for the creation of a commercial area full of shopping malls, restaurants, parks and entertainment centres, under a Rs 175 crore project. It seems that the UP chief minister has not heard of the story of the goose which laid the golden eggs: squeezing too hard just kills.
It is the Union culture ministry which has come to the rescue to some extent. The minister, Mr Jagmohan, has taken the UP government seriously to task for having flouted all the regulations, and for having bypassed all the competent authorities, including the culture ministry itself, in order to evade the issue of permission and be able to destroy in peace. Two of India’s 24 world heritage sites are already on the endangered heritage-site list, the Hampi group of monuments in Karnataka and the Manas national park in Assam. If the activity around the Taj Mahal does not stop immediately, it is very likely that this monument will suffer the same fate. Perhaps even Ms Mayavati would feel the disgrace of that: an exposure to the world of how poorly Indians value their heritage and how ignorant they are. But the real point of this misadventure lies elsewhere. Ignorance combined with greed makes for poisonous brew. The huge project around the Taj Mahal is making a lot of pockets heavier now, and the revenue from visitors, if the complex comes up, promises to match the greediest dreams. The Taj Mahal, and all other valuable sites, must be rescued from that.