Two days after a major fire broke out at the secretariat in Mumbai, there are more questions than answers. The questions are not new, they are asked every time a major fire breaks out in the country. But once the smoke and dust settle and cosmetic changes are made, it is back to business as usual till an-other fire breaks out. Reports suggest that the VVIP building was on the Mumbai fire department's watch-out list for some time and that it violated fire safety norms. It was sheer good luck that des-pite the intensity of the fire, which gutted four of the building's seven floors, the majority of the people who worked there or were visiting managed to leave the building unharmed. While the fire incident should force the government to re-focus on the issue of safety in this important building and also the others that are on the fire department's list, there's another important aspect that needs to be looked into urgently: the need to digitise government records so that they are not lost in such mishaps. Digitisation means acquiring, converting, storing and providing information in a computer format that is standardised, organised and available on demand from a common system. In Thursday's fire, the urban development department was gutted and along with it many records.
While the world over, the process of digitisation of records is seen as being as important as the records themselves, in India it is the other way round. So if you go to a government office today, you'll be greeted by stacks of paper files lying around, even at the cost of space for junior officials. But it is not just a space issue: the lack of digitisation of records expands the scope for corruption. Take for example, land records. It is well known that manual land records strengthen the nexus between bureaucrats and the land mafia but yet states have adopted a go-slow approach when it comes to digitising them. The Centre's proposal to digitise land records across states by the end of the 12th Five-Year Plan is in trouble because about 20 states failed to use even a single penny of the allotted funds for this as of December 2011. The same mentality also pervades other institutions like archives: rare books and manuscripts, which are important connections between India and its past, are left undigitised and at the mercy of our tropical, humid weather and rodents. The National Manuscript Mission is now trying to deal with this challenge and hopefully will manage to preserve our precious past.
It is true that digitisation is a time-consuming process and cannot happen overnight. But let's not forget that it is intrinsically linked to the process of improving India's quality of governance.