Everything looks impressive when you step inside the building of National Archives of India (NAI) located at Janpath in the heart of Lutyen’s Delhi. From manicured lawns to spacious library and regal corridors leading to the museums housing country’s archival heritage makes NAI a worthy place to witness, research and document history.
But the curiosity to explore a bit more makes one wonder if this great heritage – a treasure trove of non-current (more than 25 years old) public records since 1891 - is losing its relevance due to red tape and apathy of the government.
A little detour from the hallway of the main building leading upstairs to Hindi section takes you into a dingy damp dome shaped room where thousands of files transferred from ministries of external affairs and home affairs are rotting. Thick layer of dust and flakes of distemper falling from the roof give away ample proof of for how many months nobody has even cared to look at them let alone preserve neatly for reference.
A little probe leads to the shocking discovery that the conservation and treatment division is run almost by a single archivist with a couple of assistants. The NAI has appraised and received over 5 lakh files in last three years but bulk of these files are waiting to be treated and subsequently accessed and arranged as public records.
The condition of other departments is too bad because of an overall 40% shortage of staff. As a result no department of the national archives – be it the appraisal or the accession and record management – is able to function smoothly.
“The shortage is continuing for nearly past three years as the staff selection board has failed to fill up the vacancies. There are only 20 assistant archivists against a vacancy of 42. We have tried to compensate the shortage by hiring employees on contracts. Poor salary structure (Rs22,000 pm) failed to attract talent while those who came to work kept did not have a sense of belonging and kept looking for better options,” a senior NAI official said.
Another senior archivist rues the neglect. “You would be shocked to know that the strength of archivists in India is less than even Vietnam, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. A small country like Vietnam values archives more than us and employs about 10,000 archivists,” he lamented.
Another problem the NAI is struggling with is the apathy towards archives in various ministries. Barring the ministries of the home affairs and the external affairs, the track record of other ministries is very poor, NAI officials concede.
The laggards include ministries and departments like the PMO, law, labour, defence, finance, health and coal etc. Many have not handed over any records since 1960s. While the rule is to appraise over 25 years old records every year and handover the non-classified files to the national archives for upkeep, most ministries do not follow it despite being reminded periodically.
Conceding that NAI is having 40% staff shortage, the officiating director general, joint secretary in the ministry of culture, Pramod Jain claimed the ministries are responding and appraisal and accession of files is continuing. “We have received over 5 lakh files in recent months,” Jain said.
NAI officials, not ready to come on record, contest Jain’s claims.
“We appraised over 5 lakh files in last three years but all were from the home and external affairs ministries. Some 10 lakh more files are waiting to be appraised but again they are from home affairs. Appraising them is a far cry as we do not have the strength to carry out the job.”