Will the recent amendments to the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act lead to better protection of notified monuments? While the 1958 law had measures to prevent vandalism of the monuments, it hardly anticipated the imminent danger posed by unregulated development around. It was only in 1992 that this issue was addressed through additional notification. Areas around the monument were delineated as prohibited zones within 100 metres and regulated zones within a further 200 metres. These measures did not deliver the desired results. Monuments went missing, encroachment continued, and unbridled developments severely affected many important sites. The amended law has enhanced the penal provisions — the maximum jail term has been raised from three months to two years and fine from Rs.5,000 to Rs.100,000. Further, a new monuments authority is to be established to oversee the implementation of the Act. These measures might make a difference for the better but they do not address the real challenge adequately.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which takes care of the centrally protected monuments, has commendable technical expertise. But it is poorly equipped to address the complexities of conservation. Its poor track record in implementing the rules testifies to this. Conservation policy in the United Kingdom demonstrates that protection of historical environments is best approached simultaneously at three levels — the region, the local area, and the site. This creative approach places conservation “at the heart of an effective planning system” (to quote from a White Paper on the subject), dovetails it with development plans, involves local communities in the endeavour, and ensures that all the relevant authorities share responsibility for implementation. As of now, the amended Indian Act would apply only to the 3,675 monuments that are protected by the ASI, leaving 700,000 unprotected heritage structures out in the cold. This major deficiency needs to be urgently addressed so that non-designated archaeological sites and other heritage structures are offered protection. The State governments, which administer about 3,500 additional monuments, must also put in place supportive systems to ensure better protection of monuments.