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Keeping a record of our past

Thanks to a lack of awareness and funds, the concept of private archives is yet to catch up in India, writes Sarath S Pillai.

india Updated: Sep 05, 2011 01:11 IST

Private archives form an amorphous category of records in our archives. The Public Records Rules, 1997, defines them as those owned by individuals and non-governmental organisations. However, the easiest way to understand private records is to see them as ‘non-public’ in nature.

The Public Records Act, 1993, considers a record as a public document if it’s created by or related to the Union government, Union Territories’ (UT) administration, public sector units, statutory bodies and corporations, commissions and committees constituted by the Centre or UTs. The records of a body/organisation funded by central or UT administration are also public in nature. Thus, it’s clear that the single central archival law leaves the concept of private archives open-ended.

Private archives include private papers of eminent persons/families, business records, ecclesiastical records and even records of political parties. The modern approach to archival management has been towards the establishment of ‘Total Archives’, which means the coexistence of public and private records. Sadly, the concept of private archives is yet to catch up in India.

India being a democratic country where fundamental rights of the people are paramount, an institutional or legal mechanism for the acquisition and preservation of private papers of eminent persons/families may be a retrograde step. In India, unlike in the West, there is no desire to donate one’s private papers. Countries like Argentina, Canada and France give tax concessions to the owners of private papers.

In India, most people are hesitant to part with their records, fearing that public access may hamper their image. Even after the death of individuals, their successors fear the same. But the only way we can preserve these records is by scientifically managing them, which is an expensive procedure.

However, the archives can’t acquire these records by force. Most private records reach archives as gifts or by persuasion. Once the archives acquire private papers, they are bound to meet the restrictions imposed on the records by the donors. Beyond the 30-year rule, which the donor can insist, restrictions such as prior permission for consultation by research scholars, submission of excerpts taken by scholars for scrutiny and even closing certain documents up to a certain period for reasons of national or personal interests are normally followed.

Business records in India, which are technically private records, are also in dire straits. The concept came late to India and, therefore, its growth has been slower. India has about 9 lakh business houses. However, just 10-15 of them have shown interest in maintaining their records. There are no major guidelines for regulating business archives as of now.

Company laws, too, usually have minimal references to record-keeping while preservation is left out of the legal purview. The concept of business archives have caught on well in western countries. There, business councils work as facilitators between private business houses and the government to create and maintain a regime of records. We need the involvement of business councils in India too. While business houses have a right to privacy, it’s about time they also manage their records scientifically. Business houses can also classify records, just as government records, and restrict access to sensitive records. But keeping the records away from public eyes is not in the public interest. The National Archives of India recommended to the finance ministry that business houses should be given tax breaks if they maintain private archives. However, nothing has come about so far.

We also need a culture of donation of these records to proper archives. Records, public or private, are important for the reconstruction and re-interpretation of a nation’s past. They are a part of a nation’s documentary heritage. A culture of archival consciousness must be inculcated in people in general and stakeholders of private archives in particular.

( Sarath S Pillai holds a post-graduate diploma in archives management from the School of Archival Studies, National Archives of India, New Delhi )

The views expressed by the author are personal