Opinion » Lead

Updated: April 20, 2012 01:10 IST

Our past is being moth-eaten

Dinyar Patel
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The Hindu

India's archives and libraries are in a state of ruin. We would lose our history and heritage if the government does not act to save them.

How do you destroy Indian history? In Delhi, letters written by Mahatma Gandhi, Dadabhai Naoroji, and Babasaheb Ambedkar are left to rot away in rooms lacking proper temperature control. In Lucknow, secretariat holdings are dumped and burned. And in Chennai, archival records are literally washed away by the monsoons.

Among both foreign and Indian scholars, it is an open secret that most Indian archives and libraries are in a deplorable state. Over the past 15 months, I have visited many institutions across the country in connection with my dissertation research on Naoroji. What I have seen has disturbed me. Archival experiences recounted by my academic colleagues have horrified me. Unless the government takes quick and decisive action, India is at risk of letting much of its heritage literally crumble into dust. Sources of Indian history are at grave risk of being lost forever.

Poor preservation

India is a country that is justifiably proud of its illustrious past. But this pride does not always translate into proper custodianship and preservation. Most Indians would cringe at how sources of Indian history are treated in government institutions. In spite of the plethora of capable administrators and skilled archivists in this country, many institutions do not follow clear, up-to-date, and verifiable standards for document preservation.

State-level facilities, where the majority of public archives are housed, are in the greatest need of help. Many institutions are housed in old buildings that may actually facilitate rapid damage to collections. The Maharashtra State Archives in Mumbai, for example, is located in an open-air structure built in 1888. As a result, pigeons regularly fly into the premises and leave their droppings on centuries-old colonial factory records and priceless newspaper collections. Occasionally, as an American colleague recently recalled, a pigeon will collide into a fan, plummet to the floor, and writhe around in a pool of blood until a peon is charged with cleaning up the mess.

The situation is also quite grim in New Delhi. At the National Archives of India, I consult Naoroji's papers in the Private Archives room, which has broken windows and no proper climate control. It is no surprise, therefore, that thousands of Naoroji's letters have been destroyed over the past few decades and that thousands more are now too damaged to be read: while Naoroji bequeathed over 60,000 items upon his death in 1917, less than 30,000 survive today. The papers of Naoroji's colleagues, such as Romesh Chunder Dutt, are in a similarly shameful state. How would the Grand Old Man react to this disappearance of so much nationalist heritage?

Poor upkeep has also damaged more recent records. Some of Dr. Ambedkar's correspondence has decayed into piles of scraps. This should not happen in a country where his legacy and memory are subjects of such great contestation and debate.

Within the international academic community, Indian archival experiences are traded like war stories. In the 1990s, an eminent British political scientist found documents and files from the Uttar Pradesh Secretariat's library dumped and burned outside. The Secretariat, the political scientist noted, contained valuable revenue settlement and provincial police reports that are probably not available anywhere else. In the fall of 2005, an M.Phil. candidate from Delhi University saw staff at the Tamil Nadu State Archives in Chennai hanging a clothesline on the archives' verandah. Why? It was being used to dry out historical papers soaked during a monsoonal deluge. And in 2008, staff at the West Bengal State Archives in Kolkata chose to go on a month-long strike after an Ivy League professor made a routine request for a document.

These three instances hint at glaring problems in the ways that Indian archives and libraries are managed. In order for there to be any hope for the long-term survival of India's sources of history, the Union and State governments need to urgently bring about real and lasting changes.

The most necessary change is also the simplest. These institutions need to be housed in proper facilities. In 21st century India, it is absolutely absurd that records and collections continue to be housed in Raj-era structures that have hardly been modernised since they were built. This is tantamount to condemning documents to 19th century preservation methods. In order for old documents to be preserved, they need to be kept in sealed, temperature-controlled environments where the elements, humidity, insects, and animals are kept at bay. The new director of the Maharashtra State Archives is pushing the State government to build such a structure for her institution. She needs support.

At the same time, new buildings must conform to the highest standards. The National Archives' annexe was inaugurated in 1991 but its construction is of such substandard quality that its roof is leaking, its window panes have fallen off, and its storage facilities are a veritable magnet for dirt and dust. Our history deserves better than this.

Secondly, these institutions need highly qualified directors and staff. There are now some encouraging developments. The National Archives, which was left rudderless for several years, now finally has a director general. He has brought about visible and commendable change in his two years on the job, helping modernise the facility and improve standards of preservation and recordkeeping. The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, the leading storehouse of non-official documents, is busy reviewing existing practices and upgrading skills and techniques. Here too, a new director is working with other experts to effect changes.

Dearth of staff

But qualified directors, alone, cannot institute real change. There is a glaring dearth of trained archivists and librarians in institutions across the country. In spite of the real talent that India yearly produces in these fields, most archives, museums, and libraries have a shockingly high number of empty posts. The reasons are not difficult to discern. It can take anywhere from two to three years for the Union Public Service Commission to clear an applicant's file for a vacancy. During that period of time, most candidates will have found another job; any remaining candidates will be deterred by low pay scales and the promise of a poor work environment. As one archival official told me, the Indian government looks upon its archivists and librarians as “dignified clerks.” It is a miracle that, in spite of everything, many central and state institutions retain a core of dedicated, professional staff.

The critical shortage of trained staff has had one very destructive consequence. Methods and technologies of preservation have greatly lagged behind what is practised elsewhere in the world. I have been dismayed to see archivists across India use technologies that were abandoned in the West decades ago. For example, the preservation technique of lamination — whereby brittle documents are pasted in between thin sheets of paper — is still widely and indiscriminately used. This technique, as archivists in the British Library inform me, is no longer commonly practised there due to adverse long-term consequences.

I have seen these consequences first hand: Gandhi's earliest surviving letter to Naoroji is no longer legible due to lamination. Without more qualified preservationists, institutions in India are unable to keep up with international best practices or even review their own preservation policies, assimilating tried-and-tested techniques with new methods.


In order to facilitate the hiring and retention of India's best talent, and in order to put an end to decades of neglect and destruction, certain institutions, such as the National Archives, should be granted a degree of autonomy. The National Archives desperately needs more qualified staff in order to assist in projects for preservation, catalouging, and upkeep. At present, the director has limited powers even to repair those broken windows that daily let in dust, mosquitoes, and hornets into the room where I work: all repairs must go though the Central Public Works Department, adding a completely unnecessary layer of bureaucracy.

The Ministry of Culture, which oversees so many of India's cultural treasures, must provide the right conditions for allowing India's best historians, librarians, and archivists to give Indian heritage the dedication and care it deserves. The Nehru Library, which has a degree of autonomy, provides an interesting model of an institution that has fared better than most.

Indian libraries and archives have enormous potential. They are home to some of the world's greatest and most important collections of historical documents. With qualified directors, better staff, and proper facilities, these institutions can take their rightful places as internationally-recognised centres of scholarship. They can help restore India's pride of place as a global hub of learning and culture. Will the government help give India's history the future it deserves?

(Dinyar Patel is Ph.D. candidate, Department of History, Harvard University.

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Seriously ,This is a great issue in hand and yet we don't do anything about this neither our government....
if it would have been the matter of cricket, you see, it would have been solved of all the priorities
if government does not do something we should forced them to do it.

think of the ways to do it(my suggestion...lets make a group at most popular sites and gather more and more of people and aware of them of the situation then govt will do something about it surely..)

from:  Divyanshu Bansal
Posted on: Apr 25, 2012 at 20:47 IST

A few months' ago, I had to visit the Town Hall Library in Mumbai which is an imposing structure with a lovely facade. Sadly, the library was in a deplorable state. The staff were extremely helpful and even permitted me to do my own research on their computer.

The apathy of the Government and in fact the apathy of the general populace towards heritage, culture and history is there for all to see. One only needs to visit the monuments of Flora Fountain, Victoria Terminus and other buildings around Fort, to feel ashamed at the sad and sorry state of affairs. Every building there can tell a story. The Victoria Terminus is a structure par excellence, so is the GPO and the Municipal Building.
History seems to be relegated to history books and forgotten. But that should not be the case. This is our history, our heritage, our culture, our roots. It is time to wake up and inculcate a sense of pride for our heritage and harness a force among the youth to proudly maintain their heritage.

from:  Rumi Engineer
Posted on: Apr 23, 2012 at 13:28 IST

very sad n so bad ...first bakhtayar khilji tried to ruin our heritage
now walking on the same steps indirectly our govt. is doing the
same..but alas its us who is responsible...of still letting it go the
way it is....

from:  abhilash bhutani
Posted on: Apr 20, 2012 at 18:16 IST

I saddens me to see the way our indigenous culture is losing value. Last month I tried to locate a popular hindi novel by Dharamveer Bharti and I couldn't find it in Kolkata, Delhi or Kota. I finally traced it in Bihar. It's a shame to be searching like that for a masterpiece in Hindi literature.

from:  Ashish
Posted on: Apr 20, 2012 at 17:09 IST

The only commendable archival experience I had in India was at the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research in Mumbai last summer. The archival team there is doing a great job. Otherwise, not only are Indian archives being moth-eaten, the red tape that surrounds securing access is extremely tedious and affects worst students and researchers from foreign universities, who do not have months to wait in India for permission.

from:  Jayita
Posted on: Apr 20, 2012 at 15:56 IST

Digitization of libraries is the only solution to the future. Post digitization all libraries should be connected. This will automatically
solve most of the problems. Archaeological Survey of India should be
enlisted for restoration methods.

from:  Vineet
Posted on: Apr 20, 2012 at 15:24 IST

Regretfully there is no money in the preservation of heritage records for the politicians so who cares !?

from:  Avinasha
Posted on: Apr 20, 2012 at 14:04 IST

This is an eye opener to many. India has a vast and old history. It is the duty of the government to protect all the old manuscripts. History is important for progress.

from:  ravi
Posted on: Apr 20, 2012 at 11:06 IST

Hello everybody,we have a group called "Indiasporas" on FB. I shared this article on our group to rise an awareness of the need to digitalised our Indian archives and thus create jobs for the stidents who studied Indian history and archeology. We desperately need professional genealogists to take care of the researches for our roots in India. Our group members are mainly grandchildren of those who went as indentured labourers throughout the various european colonies,French,English,portugese,netherland...
I am from Mauritius and actually residing in Normandy France and our leader Alistair Samy is from Trinidad and resides in Jacksonville,Florida,USA.Our members are from various countries as,Mauritius, France (Réunion,Martinique, Guadeloupd Islands)Singapore,Malaysia..... etc.Ther are lots of paople willing to pay for a service.We now have a Minister for the overseas Indians who take care of us . We are better known as PIOs (Persons of Indian Origin.)Thanks to the Hindu newspaper.

from:  Sammy Permal
Posted on: Apr 20, 2012 at 10:31 IST

Great article - perhaps the most important subject of today. When people don't look at their own culture with pride and misunderstand India's message about science and spirituality they are sure to look elsewhere. I am amazed to see how countries with a relatively recent and often inglorious past enshrine their manuscripts in world class museums and archives. For India it is not just about historical nostalgia - it is about national security, economic and political stability, even its future sciences that can gain so much from indigenous knowledge systems such as Ayurveda, Vastu, etc.. Archeological preservation must be a significant part of the Indian budget and people should be held accountable.

from:  Ashish
Posted on: Apr 19, 2012 at 23:57 IST

Excellent article,hope goverment take some action to protect our own history.

from:  Raghu
Posted on: Apr 19, 2012 at 23:44 IST

It is indeed shocking and absolutely depressing to hear about the present state of
our country's archives. Most of us would have suspected them to be in a bad
condition all along...but could have never imagined them to be in such an
appalling state either.
Thanks to Dinyar Patel for his series of articles highlighting: the present state of
our archives, the problems faced by them, the need for urgent remedial measures,
along with a few suggestions and ideas to bring about the necessary change.

It all has to start somewhere and I truly hope Dinyar's earnest efforts will mark as a
beginning for a nation-wide awareness on need for better archives in our country.

from:  Subbiah Yadalam
Posted on: Apr 19, 2012 at 23:23 IST

Dinyar Patel has given us an urgent warning. One hopes it would bring some response from Indian academics, who are the chief users of Indian archives and who should be concerned about their condition. Only they can compel the administrators and politicians to act. Another example of mishandled preservation is the current fad of "digitization" -- more precisely, tearing apart a book's pages, then scanning the pages into digital images. I have seen at least two horrifying projects where Urdu printed books were torn apart, scanned, and then left on the floor in heaps for re-binding at some later date. Tearing a book apart and scanning its pages may take no more than 30 minutes, having the same pages cleaned, checked, and then rebound properly may take two hours. One can easily imagine the huge backlogs. The worst case was the former Asafiya Library (now the State Library) where several hundred Urdu books were lying in toppled over heaps on the floor, in many cases their pages scattered.

from:  C. M. Naim
Posted on: Apr 19, 2012 at 21:59 IST

It's an urgent need to preserve the historical documents. I wish to contribute in this regard.

from:  Abhi
Posted on: Apr 19, 2012 at 21:15 IST

Nice article that throws light upon something that essentially needs attention and care. History is a neglected subject that is considered as a waste, non-lucrative subject of modern day school curriculum. The modern day medicine, business and agriculture have sprouted from that one seed of ancient culture and the historical records are the only written evidence showing that we have had great history. Ministry of culture should not only make colorful videos and advertise across, but also can and should preserve these irreplaceable treasures and maintain our cultural heritage!

from:  Sharmila Natarajan
Posted on: Apr 19, 2012 at 21:01 IST

I guess the problem needs to be tackled at the root - the MoC which is central body overseeing all these ruins. Are the people there merely doing their job because its a decent govt. job that gets you a pension and really couldn't care two hoots about India's history? Do they deserve to be there in the first place? Is there any level of importance given to preserving our culture and history by our own people..I doubt that. Frankly the present generation (Gen Y and not X) probably dont even know who Dr. Ambedkar was. Then the question arises who are we maintaining these archives for? Is it because preserving history is means of passing on the baton for the years to come?

from:  Sandeep Jayaram
Posted on: Apr 19, 2012 at 20:15 IST

This article reminds me of a visit to the National Archives in Delhi
about seven years back. The lady working there refused to get the
document which I needed because the room where it was located was full
of monkeys...!

from:  Sahibqiran Siwum
Posted on: Apr 19, 2012 at 18:00 IST

How many us do really know our history and great indian Intellectuals? Current generation is busy in the technicalities of current technologies and residing far away from the ideologies our past Intellectuals. Is there any NGO who work with these libraries to preserve these archives? I wish the govt to realize and come up with some solution to preserve the proofs of our history.

from:  Ravitej kommana
Posted on: Apr 19, 2012 at 16:51 IST

This is a most timely warning and The Hindu is complimented for publishing it.This is the actuality of various libraries,archives in India today.Respect for books,preserving historical documents,reading culture are fast eclipsing in India today and are replaced by the Bollywood and cricket.May I point out one such historical institution-The Public Library at Alfred Park Allahabad.This library was built in 1879 and the building is a Gothic Architecture.It houses about 100,000 books,some of these books are rare and a treasure trouve of manuscripts and journals.Ever since this library has been taken over by the UP Government it has attained the state described in this article.I happened to be its regular visitor during 60s when I visited this library recently the rare books that I read before are not to traced,dusts are settling on books,manuscripts and journals have torned pages.The Director of the library is sitting in his office without even looking at the reading hall .

from:  Prof A N Malviya
Posted on: Apr 19, 2012 at 16:49 IST

Good article Dinyar.

Try to do anything and bureaucracy will oppose, one thing I have always learnt. Governement knows that it can not manage libraries, but it will never accept the fact.

Archive proffessional are perveived and prejudiced as clerks. India has huge history to preserve and conserve. The best option according to me is to distribute them amongst collectors, who will be responsible for its conservation.
Another idea could be to get the preservation projects sponsored. Channels like discovery/ national geographic could serve to be the right epicenter. They can create interesting documentaries out of data collected from these musuems and help them liase their state of the art honour.
What stops enthusiastic pro's from doing these, the red tape White dressed.

from:  rohan kothari
Posted on: Apr 19, 2012 at 16:28 IST

Good luck to you, Dinyar Patel. You have brought some valid points to
light. However, I don't see much changing. Bureaucratic paper pushers
will take another 60 years to consider your points, let alone take any
action. Dealing with the current is hard enough in this white elephant
of a state, forget about conserving the past! Sad isn't it? It is what
it is, as Belichick likes to say (since you are studying in MA, thought
I would throw that in :).

from:  lrao
Posted on: Apr 19, 2012 at 16:05 IST

Absolutely true! Fault lies with the indian mindset, be it citizens or the government.The wide-spread apathy and inertia towards the most valuable things of our civic and personal life is the root cause. Our imitation of the west is misplaced. We haven't taken from them what we should have.
Moral revolution is overdue.

from:  shobha Pawar
Posted on: Apr 19, 2012 at 15:01 IST

Since we do not preserve our history, the now generation (and the coming generations to come) are not aware of our past as well as the capability of our own people and shy to even talk about ouw very own rich culture

from:  Archana
Posted on: Apr 19, 2012 at 14:30 IST

Misappropriation is one of the main reasons for such a state of affairs. Diverting the sanctioned budgets, allocation of meagre amounts for maintainance, negligence among the staff, lack of awareness about the importance of preserving could be some other contributing factors for such a state of affairs.

Posted on: Apr 19, 2012 at 12:45 IST

How does one light a fire under these politicians and bureaucrats? We will lose everything and not even have any digital copies (while Britain proudly shares a manuscript in top condition from the 700s.

from:  Ramkishin Samat
Posted on: Apr 19, 2012 at 09:56 IST

Very sad reading. In addition to callousness and natural vagaries,
deliberate and malicious policies also play a vicious role. An ideal
example is the Brooks-Henderson report of the 1962 China-India war --
the tattered report continues to be kept under lock and key under heavy
security -- to keep the present and future generations in the dark and
to keep alive an unsullied exalted facade of Nehru and Krishna Menon. It
will continue to be well guarded till it returns to dust.

from:  Jay Ravi
Posted on: Apr 19, 2012 at 04:32 IST
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