The Archaeological Survey of India is drawing flak for its apparent unilateral decision to outsource the digitisation of its century-old archives of thousands of photographs to an American-funded organisation. The contract has been awarded to the American Institute of Indian Studies, Gurgaon, that is funded primarily by the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, the US State Department and other US government bodies.
This is despite the procedural cautions stated in a report (presented to Rajya Sabha on November 25, 2005 and tabled in Lok Sabha) by a standing parliamentary committee chaired by former MP Nilotpal Basu. The report questioned the locus standi of the AIIS in this project, based on media reports. It observed that “adequate care should be taken while finalising such kind of deal (sic) so the expenditure to be occurred… is spent in the best interest of the nation and valuable information about Indian antiquities and monuments are not handed over to foreign hands.” It further stated that ASI “would prepare estimates and compare the estimates with other eligible parties after the sanctions are obtained.” The report also highlighted the demoralisation of ASI’s own professional cadre and the urgency of having a professional archaeologist head the organisation.
But despite this report, the ASI awarded the contract to AIIS (F.No. 6/1/2006 – letter from RS Fonia, director, June 30, 2006) in response to the AIIS letter of proposal. ASI agreed to pay Rs 40 per negative and stated that AIIS could take away its negatives in batches of 1,000. “We will process as many as they give us, it could be two million, I am not concealing anything,” says Dr Pradeep Mehendiratta, vice-president, AIIS.
“This decision is shocking for several reasons,” says Professor Nayanjot Lahiri, who teaches archaeology at Delhi University. “One, due process does not seem to have been followed despite the parliamentary committee’s report: no advertisement or tender was floated. Two, competent Indian institutions like the Alkazi Foundation, Benares Hindu University or National Museum could have done the job. Three, the ASI archives are the labour of generations of photographers of proven calibre. ASI’s budget is the largest under the Ministry of Culture. Our policy-makers talk constantly of ‘capacity building’. Why could the money spent on outsourcing not have been invested long-term to train ASI personnel to handle their own archives?”
Says Dr Dilip Chakrabarti, professor of South Asian archaeology, Cambridge: “This is incorrect from a national perspective, because ASI is a national concern and it is improper to hand over its resources to a foreign interest. ASI should be headed by an Indian archaeologist who would understand, unlike a bureaucrat, the sensitivity of the issue and also the dangers of allowing unlimited access on what is where to the international antiquities market. The process should have been done in-house. It is like the National Archives allowing a foreign agency to take its documents outside its premises.”
But ASI director-general C Babu Rajeev says, when asked about the logic in choosing AIIS, “I don’t owe you an explanation!” Whatever happened to RTI?