Rethink India’s nationally protected monuments list
There is almost no discussion about the existing list, and why a monument is deemed to have national significance. As a result, we now have an unwieldy list that requires drastic rationalisation. This must change
India has 3,695 nationally protected monuments (NPMs) under the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). There is the occasional public debate about the level of protection or preservation, the complications caused by the 100-metre plus 200-metre restriction zone, the quality of visitor amenities, the availability of funds and the unclear role of the National Monuments Authority. However, there is almost no discussion about the existing list of NPMs, and why a monument is deemed to have national significance. As a result, we now have an unwieldy list that requires drastic rationalisation.
There are several problems with the list of NPMs. The first and most obvious is that it includes a large number of minor monuments with no national significance. We estimate that this applies to at least a quarter of the current list. The list, for instance, includes 75 graves of colonial-era soldiers or officials of no particular importance. An example is a small brick wall enclosure containing two graves located in Kumta, Karnataka. The graves are those of public works department engineer John Albert Cope (died in 1880), and Henry Gassen (died 1877) who worked for a cotton ginning company. The structure has no architectural value, and the individuals were of no historical consequence. Yet, they are supposed to get the same level of protection as our most cherished monuments.
Similarly, the list includes 109 kos minars, brick columns that acted as milestones on Mughal highways. They account for 49 of Haryana’s 91 NPMs. Although there is a case for protecting them, it is unclear why they should be treated as national monuments (along with attendant complications for expanding highways). Surely, it would be better to offer more limited protection to them, perhaps as state-level monuments.
The second major problem is the inclusion of several moveable antiquities. This includes pieces of sculpture, statues and cannons. An example is a 17th-century forge-welded iron cannon in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. Another example is a 100cm by 50cm sculpture of a tiger in Kumta. Not only is it difficult to provide protection to an isolated standalone antiquity, but the blanket imposition of the 100m plus 200m restricted zone also causes many complications on the ground.
A third problem is that of untraceable monuments. A Comptroller and Auditor General audit in 2013 attempted to physically verify NPMs. Of the 1,655 it looked up, it could not find 95. The ASI was later able to trace some of them, but dozens are still missing. Examples include the remains of a copper temple in Lohit (Arunachal Pradesh); the guns of Sher Shah in Tinsukia (Assam); a megalithic site in Chandauli (Uttar Pradesh); a fort in Nadia (West Bengal); and a 12th-century temple in Baran (Rajasthan). Yet, these monuments continue to be included in the NPM list. What is the point of according the highest national status to a monument that we cannot even find?
Fourth, there is a serious imbalance in the geographical distribution of the NPMs. Delhi has a disproportionate 173 NPMs, while a large state such as Telangana has only eight. A culturally rich state such as Manipur has only one. While it is understandable that a historically important place such as Delhi will have a cluster of sites, remember that large forts and palaces count only as one site each. Therefore, Delhi’s list contains several obscure tombs and ruins that are definitely not of national significance.
There are many other problems with the NPM list, but the reader will hopefully now have a sense of the issues. Note that these problems were not inherited from the colonial period. In 1951, the country only had 368 national monuments, most of them of genuine importance.
The source of the problem is that the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958 (amended in 2010) has neither a precise definition nor a process for identifying a monument for preservation. It is currently done on the whims of the ASI circle by simply issuing a notification.
To resolve this situation, the government should take the following steps. One, decide on a few simple rules for what constitutes historical, cultural and architectural significance. Then denotify the minor monuments and/or hand them over to state governments (or even a conservation agency such as INTACH). Two, shift moveable stand-alone antiquities to a museum or a public space where they can be protected and appreciated by visitors. Three, make systematic efforts to find missing NPMs. Those that still cannot be found should be removed from the list. And four, try to restore geographical balance as well as include additional sites that satisfy the new rules.
There is a lot more that needs to be done in order to preserve our national monuments, but having a sensible list of NPMs would be a good first step.
Sanjeev Sanyal is member, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister Jayasimha KR is consultant, EAC-PM
The views expressed are personal