It didn’t really need the CAG report to open our eyes to what a shoddy job the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) does of protecting our ancient monuments, which is the stated objective for why it exists.
The report is only the official stamp on what a visitor to any of these monuments, even world heritage sites that get thousands of visitors from all across the globe, can see for herself. Of course, as a compendium of ASI’s many and grave lapses 92 monuments not traceable, no database of monuments and artefacts under its care or a proper conservation policy for them, poor documentation of and less than 1 per cent spent on excavations it is a damning document.
Why is the ASI in such a sorry state? The culture ministry, which has jurisdiction over the ASI, blames manpower shortage. There is some truth in the argument. As the CAG report noted, 28.9 per cent of sanctioned posts in the ASI were vacant and more than one-third of the 3,678 monuments under its care had no attendants. In 2010, a committee headed by Veerappa Moily went into the issue and recommended 10,000 new posts be created. It has not been done. But even a few new posts that were created, such as that of four assistant director-generals and 18 joint director-generals in 2011, have not been filled.
The lack of adequate funds is the other issue which the ASI says gets in the way of proper conservation of monuments. At the showpiece Red Fort, for instance, gardens lie unkempt and overgrown, and restoration work was abandoned midway because there wasn’t money enough.
But then, little thought seems to have gone to spending whatever funds it had in a judicious fashion or to prioritise spends. The CAG report notes that in the Delhi circle, of the Rs47.51 crore spent on repairs between 2010 and 2012, as much as Rs7.66 crore went into non-conservation works such as raising boundary walls, public amenities, etc.
In sum, the 152-year-old ASI has become a large unwieldy organization trundling along without direction and a sense of what’s happening in its many offices scattered all over the country.
The fact that it is a government body, helmed by bureaucrats with little training in archaeology and beholden to politicians, does not help either. The present director general, for instance, is an IAS officer, a graduate in economics who, before he was deputed to the ASI in 2009, had stints in various departments such as personnel, land and revenue, and home. As for the politicians, they often impose agendas on the ASI that have little to do with heritage conservation.
The controversy over the ASI’s excavation of the Babri Masjid site in Ayodhya in 2003 is well known. But even the haste with which the ASI was deployed to restore the Kedarnath temple smacks of majoritarian populism. The ASI wasn’t similarly prodded to resurrect the tomb of Wali Gujarati, the 17th century poet considered the father of the Urdu ghazal, which was razed during the 2002 riots in Ahmedabad.
In a country with far more pressing concerns and a general disregard for heritage, there is little public pressure to enforce accountability in the ASI. Even the middle-classes, increasingly vocal about corruption and other ills, don’t say a word when they see monuments of immense historical significance poorly kept or vandalised.
Here, too, the ASI could have done more to foster heritage awareness and sensitivity. Perhaps, what the ASI needs is radical autonomy, so that it is insulated from politicians, gets to lay down its own agenda and only those with the technical expertise and a real understanding of archaeology, get to head it.
The author is Features Editor with dna