Do government and monuments make uneasy bedfellows? ‘You bet they do’ is roughly what the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report recently tabled in Parliament, says. The report ensues from a performance audit of seven museums and 1,655 monuments, the records of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) as also information gleaned from the ministry of culture. The report is so severely an indictment of the institutional guardians of India’s material antiquity that this government, not exactly known for falling in love with CAG reports, is probably hastening to give it a quiet burial before someone sniffs it out as one more scandal — this time ‘monumental’ in the truest sense.
But, first, let us look at the magnitude of the problem. Whether in relation to monuments or antiquities, the ASI lacks a reliable data base. This means that when the ASI says it protects 3,678 monuments, the organisation is fibbing because, in fact, it has no such exact figure. A clear example is literally at hand: in relation to Delhi, the ASI headquarter maintains that there are 174 protected monuments whereas the ASI’s Circle office lists only 149. The ASI does not even know how many of the monuments it supposedly protects have disappeared. At least, 35 were reported as ‘missing’ to Parliament in 2006, a number considerably short of 92 a figure that the CAG has recorded as missing. This abysmal lack of even something as basic as a reliable database of immovable antiquities, becomes even more serious in relation to those that are moveable because of the impossibility of being able to trace items of antiquity that are stolen or which have ‘disappeared’.
The bulk of centrally protected monuments have been neglected for years. Those that have received funds appear, with some exceptions, to be poorly conserved. The excellent photographs accompanying the report highlight this fact: several of these are of the Taj Mahal showing cracks on the outer walls, missing stones and plaster, seepage, and plastic pipes randomly fixed. Unauthorised constructions and encroachments are legion, including at World Heritage sites: 628 at Khajuraho, 194 at Fatehpur Sikri and 107 at Champaner. This has something to do with the fact that the practice of preparing inspection notes that document the state of monuments — which began in British times and continued for some years after Independence — has been given up. It also has do with the ministry not finding a long-term solution for encroachment.
Exploration and excavation are important responsibilities of the ASI, yet it is spending less than 1% on such work. About a century ago, British India allocated 5% of the archaeological budget for these activities. Considering its reduced role in archaeological research, why should the Survey be the official guardian of all archaeological activities in the country? The writing of reports, an integral part of any excavation, is alarmingly delayed, with some pending for more than 50 years (such as those on Mathura, Sravasti and Ropar). That the government does not consider this a major problem is suggested by the fact that the excavator, who failed to complete his reports on the Harappan cities of Dholavira and Banawali, was awarded a Padma Shri in 2013.
Preserving excavated mounds is by and large ignored, even the fencing being missing at many sites. The most glaring mismanagement is with regard to what patriotic Indians consider as their most precious heritage — Harappan sites, for which the ASI is seeking World Heritage status. Not even this, though, can rival the state of the Kanaganahalli stupa in Karnataka. Excavations in the 1990s revealed rare inscribed panels, including one of emperor Ashoka, but the only protection provided is a tent for the Ashoka panel — and this, as the CAG report says, after a visit and reprimand by Union minister Jairam Ramesh. The report notes that despite “incurring an expenditure of R1.42 crore.....we found that the excavated parts of the Stupa and the panels were lying scattered in the open, subject to the vagaries of nature. Water had accumulated in many parts and black patches had appeared on the panels.”
As details relentlessly pile on, the ministry’s failure to provide leadership stands out. There is simply no will to push reforms through. Numerous parliamentary reports going back to the Mirdha Committee of 1984, and no less than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself in 2009, have pointed to the need for a strategy on field work. Yet, there is still no national policy on excavation and exploration. In much the same way, three committees have pointed to the huge manpower shortage, to no avail.
Most ASI monuments are without a full-time guard and there is an alarming shortage of technically competent staff. Outsourcing, as the report notes, cannot solve the problem and has adversely impacted the ASI’s performance, as the case of inscription of World Heritage sites demonstrates. When the ASI prepared in-house dossiers, 16 sites were successfully brought within the World Heritage list. However, in the last five years, when this was outsourced, with the exception of one nomination for the forts of Rajasthan, no other proposal has gone through. Court rulings too are treated with complete indifference. So, for instance, the Supreme Court passed a judgment in 2004 through which notifications issued by the Karnataka government declaring 43 centrally protected monuments as Karnataka Waqf Board properties, were annulled. However, the ASI failed to take steps to cancel the notifications. In the meantime, the Karnataka government notified six more monuments as Waqf properties in 2005 and this went unchallenged by the ministry and the ASI.
On paper the ministry maintains that “it provides guidance on all policy matters which are implemented by the ASI and the ministry also monitors the activities of the ASI on all important matters on regular basis.” This is a ministry living in denial. This is ministry squarely responsible for the failure to protect our national heritage, a failure that has been highlighted by Parliament, by the courts, and now by the CAG.
Nayanjot Lahiri teaches archaeology at the Department of History, University of Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal