The future lies in ruins

Published on Jan 23, 2006 01:02 AM IST

The Archaeological Survey of India?s (ASI) mandate features pretty impressive programmatic statements. The mandate tells you that it protects 3,663 monuments, publishes reports, preserves sites, undertakes and oversees archaeological explorations and excavations.

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None | ByNayanjot Lahiri

The Archaeological Survey of India’s (ASI) mandate features pretty impressive programmatic statements. The mandate tells you that it protects 3,663 monuments, publishes reports, preserves sites, undertakes and oversees archaeological explorations and excavations. This kind of listing is meant to convey a clear message. Our monument’s national guardian means business.

These phrases, though, no longer dazzle anybody. While we may not know how much lime was used in making ancient mortar or how new masonry must be stained to match the old architecture, this much we certainly recognise: the discrepancy that exists between fact and phrase. Clearly, monuments are not maintained by memorable phrases. ‘Uncared’ rather than ‘protected’ is how most Indians describe large chunks of their heritage. And this, in spite of an annual budget of Rs 250 crore allocated to the ASI.

Many have been candid about this apathy. It would be nice to believe that candour, especially in the public domain, could make some difference to righting the state of wronged ruins. In reality, though, non-specialists at the helm of the Survey are hostile to opinions about the shambolic state of affairs. After I had written an opinion piece, well-wishers arrived to cut me down to size, to make me see the dangers of falling foul with the big guys who run the ASI.

But of late, ordinary folk hyperventilating on the state of archaeology are feeling less Lilliputian. Unexpectedly, they find themselves in august company — no less than that of Parliament. Apparently, for more than 20 years, Parliament has been examining the functioning of the ASI. And, it seems that for the same length of time, the ASI and its umbrella ministry have been unresponsive to parliamentary prescription and proscription. You only have to turn to the most recent report on that organisation, to clear any doubts on this.

A standing parliamentary committee, chaired by Nilotpal Basu, has produced a report on the ‘Functioning of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)’. This was presented to the Rajya Sabha on November 25, 2005, when it was also tabled in the Lok Sabha. The report, interestingly enough, came hot on the heels of a brainstorming session on ‘Heritage and the ASI’ where the minister of culture listened to a cross-section of scholars from across India speak about the sorry state of India’s heritage and the ASI. Having a reputation for plain speaking, Jaipal Reddy must have noticed the similarity in the perceptions about the state of Indian archaeology being expressed there and, less than a week later, in the Basu report. In fact, quite apart from being clear and comprehensive, it is the candour of its observations that makes the report worth discussing.

The report recounts a tale of ignored recommendations and notifications. The 1984 recommendations of the Mirdha committee on according to the ASI the status of an autonomous, scientific and technical institution is an example of this. This recommendation was accepted and even officially announced on May 1, 1989. But the notification announcing this was not implemented.

Consequently, the Survey continues to function ‘as an attached office of the Ministry of Culture’. While archaeology everywhere has flourished because of its interface with modern science and technology, the ASI — the largest government machinery in the world manning archaeology — has not been allowed to develop along those lines.

Nor has it been headed by a professional archaeologist for more than a decade. This, despite the fact that in May 2002, an official notification was issued which stated that the ASI’s director general should be someone with qualifications and knowledge in archaeology. Clearly, the aim of that notification was to end the sorry saga of the last 12 years when all directors general have been IAS officers.

While it is true that some administrators have also been great scholars, this cannot be said about the recent leadership at the ASI and, in any case, professionals within the organisation have to be encouraged. In their reply to the committee’s queries, the Ministry of Culture’s mandarins have suggested that generalist administrators have not hampered the organisation’s functioning in any way. Naturally, administrators believe that everything in India — from industry to archaeology — can only benefit from their presence.

Fortunately, the parliamentary sub-committee did not think so. It expressed the view that “a person who has no basic qualification or knowledge of archaeology cannot handle the apex responsibility of a scientific institution like the ASI”.

The committee’s report also chronicles the current academic state of the ASI in some detail. The haste with which Rs 4.98 crore was allocated for the Saraswati project (this was the reduced budget that was originally pegged at Rs 36.02 crore), without any discussion or recommendation made by either an academic body or university, is mentioned. Such discussion was necessary because a project which tried to trace the course of the ancient river by excavating a few related sites is unjustified since the basic course of the river has been known since the nineteenth century.

The scandalous delay in the non-writing and/or publication of excavation reports has also been highlighted by Basu. By its own admission, of the 292 excavations that the ASI has undertaken since Independence, reports of only 45 have been published. Apparently, it has been the practice to transfer officers before they can complete writing their reports. This is partly true.

Simultaneously, though, it ought to have been pointed out that there is also a remarkable lack of accountability. Otherwise, how could the Indus city of Kalibangan — whose complete report is pending since 1969 — remain only partially published? More recently, why have the ASI’s prolonged excavations at Dholavira in Kutch, perhaps the most important Indus civilisation site after Mohenjodaro, not yet resulted in a thoroughly documented and up-to-date article?

The most amazing revelation, though, is about the lack of confidence that the leadership of the Survey has in its own cadre. Apparently, when the National Mission of Antiquities was launched in 2005, none of the ASI’s officers were considered qualified to head such a project. Instead, the Survey considered the possibility of handing over this mission to the American Institute of Indian Studies. No self-respecting nation hands over the documentation of its antiquities to a foreign body, however competent and well-intentioned it may be. Moreover, while outsourcing may offer an instant solution, it is no substitute for institution building.

Why the ASI thought of consciously abdicating its responsibilities remains unclear although the implications of such an abdication were clearly understood by the standing committee. It has asked that “adequate care should be taken while finalising such kind of a deal so that the expenditure to be incurred on the National Mission of Antiquities is spent in the best interest of the nation and valuable information about Indian monuments are not handed over to foreign hands”.

There is enough good criticism in the Basu report for those in the government who are serious about rescuing the ASI. But that is a separate question. The more pertinent one is this: is its fate likely to be different from previous avtars? Will it be able to withstand a government machinery manned by persons who have such an impressive track record of killing off reports and recommendations?

The writer teaches archaeology at the Department of History, Delhi University

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