The recent celebration of International Archives Day has turned the spotlight on the poor state of government archives in India. It serves as an urgent reminder of the imperative need to improve them. Despite a good early beginning — 1805 in the case of the Tamil Nadu Archives and 1891 in the case of National Archives of India — most government institutions have failed to keep pace with the developments in archival practices. The user experience and the public services they offer are far from satisfying. Unfortunately, historical records, though no less important than other forms of heritage, are low on government priority and can be said to be the most endangered. For instance, the National Archives, the premier institution that holds a 40 km. shelf-length of historical records, has a financial outlay of a paltry Rs.20 crore (2010-11). With this, it has to upkeep records, improve infrastructure, acquire new documents, provide grants to State-level organisations, and run the School of Archival Studies to train archivists. What is of equal concern is the poor utilisation of allotted funds. Poor planning and inefficient administration have added to the parlous state of archives.
Digitising records and providing information online is critical to the future of archives. It helps preservation by limiting the use of original records, improving public services, and facilitating better networking of archival repositories. Although the Working Group on Art and Culture for the Eleventh Five-Year Plan identified this as a priority, the target of digitising five million pages a year compares poorly with, say, the 33 million pages targeted annually by the United Kingdom. Archiving has to scale up quickly to cope with the large number of records and make up for lost time. To complicate matters, slow de-classification of records by government departments hampers this effort and affects the efficiency of archives. In the case of the National Archives, this factor alone accounts for holding up the acquisition of an estimated half a million records. With several institutions shifting to the digital mode of working, the major challenge facing India's archives is the preservation of digital information. An early decision on new collecting strategies is imperative if the loss of invaluable contemporary information is to be prevented. Innovative funding plans, capacity building, and a sincere commitment to protecting the historical record are vital to ensure the future of the past.