The Taj Mahal was the nub of the argument in a recent opinion piece by Dr Nadeem ul Haque on the Planning Commission: ‘Should we have a planning commission?’
— The News, November 3, 2015.
I feel that both sides of the argument were misplaced and am elaborating my view, in keeping with the exhortation of the author to “let the debate go on”. Dr Haque quoted Khawaja Asif as saying that “If there had been a Planning Commission the Taj Mahal would not have been built!” He then retorted: “First, let us tell Khawaja Asif that he is very right. Taj Mahal, an ageing emperor’s whim, should not have been built in any case. The Planning Commission was built to keep such whims in check.”
This argument raises two questions: Should the Taj Mahal have been built? And what is the role of the Planning Commission? In addressing these questions, both sides have lost sight of the most crucial ingredient in any debate: the context. I suppose what one would like to see over time is the avoidance of outlandish projects. In the context of its time, the age of monarchy, the Taj Mahal was not at all outlandish. In fact, it was quite the norm – from the time of the Pharaohs, kings and emperors built mausoleums for themselves. The only difference as far as the Taj Mahal was concerned was that it was particularly elegant – truly a marvel of aesthetics and architecture.
It is also misleading to say that there was no ‘planning commission’ in the age of monarchy; the advisory body just assumed different forms. In fact, the calibre of the nauratans in Akbar’s court far exceeds that of those who pass as ministers these days. There is little doubt that emperors sought the guidance of their advisors, but it is more relevant to recall that in those times all wealth and property belonged to the monarch, who ruled by divine right. The monarch was not answerable to anyone for his or her choices.
Under the norms of monarchy, it was perfectly acceptable to build the Taj Mahal. Ironically, even if a Planning Commission had been present, it would have congratulated itself for approving the construction. Over its lifetime, it has generated far more in tourism revenues than its cost – something a Planning Commission is intended to ensure. Not just that, it has become an iconic symbol of India, making the country known in the farthest corners of the world. The project’s payoff has been huge.
In that light, similar investments in pyramids, cathedrals, mosques, palaces, and forts during the age of monarchy constitute the cultural heritage that is a huge draw for modern-day pride and pleasure. To write them off as whimsical is to be both ahistorical and short-sighted. Nevertheless, we have moved on to the era of representative governance, in which the wealth of the nation belongs not to the state but to the people, whom the state is accountable to. So, contrary to what Khawaja Asif implies, the state is not entitled to build a Taj Mahal today without the consent of the taxpayers.
This is not to say that a Taj Mahal cannot be built in our time. It can, as long as the builder uses his or her own money to do so. For example, Donald Trump can quite lawfully build the Trump Taj Mahal (note the value of the name) in Atlantic City; Ahsanullah Moni can build one in Sonargaon; Mukesh Ambani can build an Antilia in Mumbai; and our own rulers can construct palaces with gold-plated faucets in various places. No one can object, except to question the taste and the source of wealth in some instances.
But the state, or the representatives of the state, cannot make such edifices using the money of the taxpayers. In our times, these would be outlandish projects and the Planning Commission is intended to prevent them by keeping the monarchical proclivities of our rulers under control. And that brings us to the real issue: the fact that under a representative cloak, our rulers continue to harbour monarchical tendencies and ambitions. It is very hard for them to submit to the control and accountability of institutions, designed to act as watchdogs on the behalf of the citizens.
The fact that the state controls the appointment of officials to such institutions renders the latter ineffectual. Furthermore, the fact that most officials appointed to such institutions themselves aspire to become part of the darbar undercuts any remaining institutional effectiveness. Given this contextual reality, there is really no point in having the kind of hobbled and crippled planning commission that we have today.
Dr Haque is also quite right in his observations about the foreign donors, who are supposed to assist with projects in Pakistan. Most of their representatives assume the mentality of colonial governors, who know better than the natives about what the natives should get. They are just as impatient with watchdog institutions as the native rulers.
In order to keep the anachronistic tendencies of our native rulers and foreign benefactors in check, a planning commission acting on behalf of the citizens is essential. However, expecting the one that we have to fulfil this function is completely unrealistic. What we need is a people’s planning commission – a set of experts appointed by civil society – to rigorously evaluate and critique all projects proposed by the state. In our neo-monarchical era, citizens have to strive for creative ways to protect their interests.
The writer is on leave as vice-president and provost of Habib University.