The Comptroller and Auditor General has indicted the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the premier institute mandated to protect national monuments, for its miserable performance. The evidence of failure revealed is shocking, and the conclusions drawn about the state of conservation are depressing. Instead of seriously reviewing the performance audit findings and implementing corrective measures, the Ministry of Culture is squabbling over a remark on the number of missing monuments. After inspecting about 1655 protected sites, the CAG reported that 92 are missing. The ministry has contested this, stating that only 21 are untraceable. It has speciously argued that another 26 monuments, though submerged under reservoirs, encroached upon and affected by urbanisation, cannot be classified as missing. It is yet to verify the existence of six more monuments, but has nevertheless given an assurance that the remaining ones are physically present. If this claim is correct, then the CAG may have to revise its estimates and categories for the sake of accuracy. But the number of missing monuments is not the only issue. There are other critical shortcomings.
The ASI has not satisfactorily completed the basic and simple task of maintaining an error free inventory of monuments that is fundamental for regular monitoring. There are serious discrepancies between the data available at the circle and sub-circle offices, and the headquarters of the ASI. To sort out such issues and provide a reliable data base, the government created the National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities (NMMA) in 2007. Disappointingly, at the end of its five-year tenure, the NMMA had managed to document only 80,000 of the 5 lakh monuments targeted. The ASI has also not fared well in another core task: excavating potential sites and expanding the horizon of history. Sadly, this premiere institute spends less than one per cent of its total expenditure on this important activity. Even where it has conducted excavations, the ASI has not completed the projects. In 2010, the ministry amended the Ancient Monuments, Sites and Remains Act and promised to regulate development around the monuments better. This has not yet happened. So far, it has drafted site-specific building regulations for only two of the 3678 protected monuments and sites. Earlier committees that reviewed the functioning of the ASI had also pointed out some of these inadequacies. It appears that not much has changed. Unless the government restructures the ASI, improves institutional infrastructure and regularly monitors its performance, India’s priceless heritage will slowly be lost.