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Hurting our heritage

The CAG's report on India's cultural institutions proves beyond doubt that our heritage is not safe with State-funded agencies, writes Nayanjot Lahiri.

india Updated: Apr 30, 2012 11:15 IST
Nayanjot Lahiri
Nayanjot Lahiri
Hindustan Times
Nayanjot Lahiri,Comptroller and Auditor General of India,CAG

Usually, one hears of the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) when it audits ministry programmes where the money value is huge, going into thousands of crores of rupees. Less known is the work it has done with regard to cultural institutions funded by the Union government. Such institutions with their meagre budgets stand nowhere in competition with flagship schemes with Rs 40,000 crore a year. However, the CAG's findings there are as serious and reveal that for all the talk about our 'great' heritage, its institutional guardians cannot be described as working for the national good. In the light of what they reveal, it is best to let the reports speak for themselves.

Let me begin with the findings relating to three institutions in Kolkata - the Indian Museum, Victoria Memorial Hall and The Asiatic Society. Considering their long institutional histories, one imagines that there would be uniform benchmarks for acquisition and valuation of art objects, manuscripts etc. On the contrary, as the CAG reports reveal, they appeared to have had no policy by which such objects were either acquired or conserved.

Funds for acquisition remained largely unutilised between 1999 and 2004 and where objects were acquired, there were no norms for ascertaining their value. For example, the Purchase Committee of the Indian Museum recommended that two carved pieces of African ivory and a set of chess pieces be acquired merely on a statement made "by the individual seller that these artefacts were collected from African countries by her mother-in-law. The antiquity of the artefacts was not established" nor was there anything which could convince the CAG team that the artefacts deserved a place among the museum objects. In much the same way, as far as conservation and restoration work goes, there was no system in any of the institutions to identify damage to objects and to prioritise their conservation. In one instance, the restoration of a batch of oil paintings in The Asiatic Society remained incomplete even after a span of some 18 years.

The state of accessioning of objects is even more revealing. Less than 50% of the collection of The Asiatic Society, for instance, was found to be accessioned in 2004. The state of the Indian Museum was far worse. While in the art and anthropology sections, 88.38% to 84.45% of the objects respectively were not accessioned, in the archaeology section, the number of objects accessioned was more than the number of objects possessed by the museum!

The CAG report (2010-11) on the National Library in Kolkata, is also an eye-opener. During 2003-09, the physical certification of the collection had only been done in two of the 39 divisions and revealed that more than 5% of the 70,000 books in the Old English Division were 'missing'. Moreover, readers did not seem to be the library's priority. Some 77% of the books 'sat' for over a year from the date of accessioning before being displayed. The test check done by the audit team in 2007 on requisition slips of readers is even more indicting. All the requisitions which had been refused in a day on the grounds that the concerned books were not available, were collected. However, the very next morning, audit conducted physical verification of those books and found that 40% daily requisitions, which the library staff had declared "not found" were there in the stack in their allotted place. The one difference, though, was that the management of the library did initiate remedial measures in response to the audit observations.

This institutional malaise exists in the National Museum as well where, apparently, one-third of its 22 galleries were closed, some like the Manuscript Gallery for as long as eight years. The Art Purchase Committee of the Museum has been defunct for many years and an enquiry in 2010-11 showed that the last purchase of art objects was done in 1997. Then, there are major safety issues in India's premier museum. The alarm system and the CCTV in the Coin Gallery was not working from 2007 till 2011 even while regular maintenance charges were being paid for them. Not surprisingly, there had been 156 cases of theft/loss of art objects with 122 in the Anthropology Department and 33 relating to coins. One wonders whether the devastating findings that the National Museum inspection revealed, are being addressed.

More than a year ago, I had suggested that the most fitting way to honour the Archaeological Survey of India, in what it believes to be the 150th year of its existence, was to appoint an independent assessor to scrutinise the problems faced by it. Unknown to me, the CAG was planning a performance audit of the ASI which has now begun. One hopes that the outcome should be a specific, time-bound roadmap to rejuvenate an organisation whose responsibility is to preserve and protect one essential dimension of our cultural heritage.

As it is, what the CAG has revealed about the mismanagement of cultural institutions makes one seethe while reading its reports. But beyond feeling outraged, whereas earlier one assumed that institutions under state control meant that they were in relatively safe hands, now one is absolutely sure that this is a false assumption.

(Nayanjot Lahiri is Professor at the Department of History, University of Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal.)

First Published: Apr 29, 2012 21:17 IST