The recently inaugurated exhibition — Rediscovering India: 1961-2011 — in Delhi was a fitting finale to the year-long celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). This exhibition displayed the achievements of ASI in the past five decades. The list is long and impressive: discoveries of existence of Harappan culture in places such as Kalibangan in Rajasthan and Dholavira in Gujarat; excavations at Buddhist sites in Kanaganhali in Karnataka and Boxanagar in Tripura; salvage operations at Nagarjunakonda, Andhra Pradesh, and conservation efforts in Hampi, Karnataka, are some of its remarkable projects. The ASI protects 3,677 monuments and has copied more than 74,000 inscriptions. It has shaped the discipline of archaeology, history and heritage conservation in the country through these significant contributions. Despite all this, the fact remains that the ASI has not institutionally innovated to meet emerging challenges. State apathy and poor financial support have added to its woes. The question is how to continue the good work and secure the past better for the future.
Art and culture received only a meagre 0.16 per cent of the total Central Plan of the government in the Eleventh Five-Year plan allocation. As a result, the Ministry of Culture, which the ASI is a part of, received only a fraction of what it needed. This poor funding pattern is unlikely to improve. For the year 2012-13, the government has sanctioned only one-third of the requested Rs. 2,916 crore. Of the scant funds that the ASI receives in turn, less than one per cent is spent on excavations (2011-12). This would neither help expand the investigation of the unexplored historical landscape nor lead to greater investment in archaeological science. The casual approach to publication of reports also reflects the declining importance of excavation. Despite the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture reminding the ASI to speed up the publication of 56 pending excavation reports five years ago, progress has been tardy. In 2007, the Working Group on Art and Culture for the Eleventh Five-Year plan recommended that more historical structures should be protected and the ASI should notify every year about 70 unprotected structures as monuments for better care. But not much has happened on this front too. The government should enhance funding and confer the status of a scientific institution on the ASI to meet its special needs. For its part, the ASI should decentralise and make its five regional directorates autonomous. They in turn, with active participation of local governments, should unravel more of the hidden past and protect them better.