A. Srivathsan

A complete restructuring of the Archaeological Survey of India is requiredif the country’s vast cultural heritage isnot to be lost.

“Weak government support is putting the country’s heritage at risk,” concluded the All-Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group of the United Kingdom (report published in 2003). This observation can apply equally to the state of affairs in India. If the budgetary allocations and parliamentary standing committee reports are any indication, archaeology and monument preservation in India require urgent attention.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), established in 1861, is the apex body that protects and conserves monuments. So far, it has declared 3,667 structures protected monuments; of these, 21 are on the World Heritage List. Another 108 monuments have been declared Centrally protected. The rest await facilities, care, and support. The funds for the ASI come from the annual grants sanctioned by the Ministry of Culture of which it is a part. In 2003-2004, the ASI estimated Rs.80 crore as its annual expense, but only Rs.45.5 crore was approved. This includes the revenue generated by the ASI through ticket collection. The 108 ticketed monuments generate about Rs.30 crore (2003-2004 figures) of which 75 per cent is returned to the Ministry of Culture. Most of the grants were spent on establishment expenses, publicity, and minor conservation works. A meagre Rs.5 crore (2003-2004) was allocated for excavation. The expenses for major conservation and preservation of monuments are met from non-plan expenditure which is about Rs.165 crore. In short, as Ananth Kumar, then Union Minister for Tourism and Culture, told India Today in 2001, only about Rs.7,600 is annually spent on each monument. These figures do not augur well for preserving and protecting India’s heritage. In 2005-2006, the amount allocated to the ASI marginally increased to Rs.63 crore, but it is not clear how much of the additional amount was spent on excavation and conservation.

Numbers not impressive

A 146 years after it was established, the number of monuments the ASI has declared protected and of national importance is not impressive. There are still umpteen structures in the deep interiors of many States that await attention. The ASI is certainly an organisation that is spread thin. Leave alone conservation and repair work, it struggles even to protect the monuments. For example, it has so far deployed about 5,000 security guards and urgently requires another 10,000. It has not yet been able to mobilise the additional security personnel.

In order to overcome the limited resource base, the Ministry of Culture floated the National Culture Fund in 1996. This scheme allows private donors and corporate organisations to fund specific conservation projects. A lot of hope was pinned on this scheme and it was expected that funds would pour in and many monuments would be taken care of. None of this has happened. So far, only about 10 monuments have been supported by the private sector. The monuments that have attracted funds are structures that are already well endowed such as the Taj Mahal and Humayun’s tomb.

The issue is not only about lack of funding. All is not well with the ASI. The reports of the 91st parliamentary standing committee chaired by Nilotpal Basu (2005) and the 107th committee chaired by Sitaram Yechury (2006) reviewed the functioning of the ASI. These reports point out three major issues. The first was the lack of manpower and the unfilled vacancies in the ASI. The 91st committee recorded that the ASI suffered from acute shortage of technical manpower. It had only 501 technical staff to take care of its monuments. Besides, it had not yet filled some 400 posts. The second and most important recommendation of the 91st committee was that the ASI be converted into a scientific and autonomous organisation. The Mirdha Committee first mooted this in 1984 and recommended that the ASI should not be treated as an administrative organisation but should be considered a specialised institution. Hence, it recommended that the ASI must be made autonomous and accorded the status of a scientific and technical institution. The Government of India accepted this recommendation and in May 1989 endowed the ASI with the status of a science and technology institution. But so far, the Ministry of Culture has not implemented this and the ASI continues to be what it was — an attached office.

The 107th committee report cautions that if the ASI does not enjoy special status “the basic role and function of the organisation will be defeated.” It also wants the ASI to have “benefits which accrue to a science and technology department.” It urged the Ministry of Culture to explore legislative measure to achieve this objective.

The third issue is that the ASI is functioning without a proper head. The Government of India issued a gazette notification in May 2002, discouraging the appointment of bureaucrats to head the ASI. Instead, it recommended that a person with a history or archaeology background and 18 years of administrative experience, with at least five years in the field of archaeology, be appointed Director General. This notification is yet to be implemented. The 107th committee report recorded its disappointment and reiterated that an expert should be appointed without any further loss of time. It is a year since this recommendation was made and not much has happened.

Some of the administrative issues seem to spill over and affect the professional functioning of the ASI. For example, there are huge delays in the publication of excavation reports. The report on the excavation at Kalibangan that was pending since 1969 was published only in 2003. About 56 excavation reports are yet to be published.

In spite of the useful and well-meaning recommendations of the parliamentary committees nothing much has been done to reinvent the ASI and strengthen it professionally. As a result, heritage protection continues to suffer. The idea of encouraging private sector participation in conservation and excavation has been there for a while. There is a proposal before the Ministry of Culture to relax norms for the National Culture Fund to make it possible for private organisations to support non-ASI monuments and also involve organisations other than the ASI in conservation work.

Given the size of the country, a single centralised organisation might not be effective. Realising this, many State Governments were encouraged to set up their own Departments of Archaeology. The condition of these departments is no better and they too have not been very effective. So far, there has not been any comprehensive review of their functioning.

The ASI has been doing a commendable job, but what it now requires is rethinking and restructuring so that it can function better and fulfil its objectives. Maybe, efforts to protect and conserve heritage structures need to be a lot more decentralised. Should the ASI make its 24 circle offices independent or should the local bodies be more actively involved are questions that need to be pursued seriously.

When contacted, ASI sources admit there is scope for improving the effectiveness of the National Culture Fund and thus its financial resources. Attempts are on to publicise the Fund and about 100 monuments are listed for attention, they say. However, A.G. Krishna Menon, conservation consultant and executive member of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), believes there are intrinsic protocol problems with the national culture fund. The ASI needs to change its approach and open up to other conservation organisations, he says and suggests getting more market-savvy may help. Whatever be the structure adopted for managing heritage structures, the effort certainly needs to be well funded and actively supported.