Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 15 January 2023

ASI-protected monuments untraceable

Source: By Divya A: The Indian Express

Fifty of India’s 3,693 centrally protected monuments have gone missing, the Ministry of Culture has told Parliament. The submissions were made by the ministry on 8 December 2022 to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture as part of a report titled ‘Issues relating to Untraceable Monuments and Protection of Monuments in India’.

How does a monument go ‘missing’? What does this mean, and what happens now?

What are centrally protected monuments?

The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act (AMASR Act) regulates the preservation of monuments and archaeological sites of national importance. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which is under the aegis of the Union Ministry of Culture, functions under this Act. The Act protects monuments and sites that are more than 100 years old, including temples, cemeteries, inscriptions, tombs, forts, palaces, step-wells, rock-cut caves, and even objects like cannons and mile pillars that may be of historical significance.

According to the provisions of AMASR Act, ASI officials are supposed to regularly inspect the monuments to assess their condition. Apart from various conservation and preservation operations, ASI officials can also file police complaints, issue show cause notices for the removal of encroachments, and communicate to the local administration the need for demolition of encroachments.

So how can a monument go “missing”?

The ASI was founded in 1861 by Alexander Cunningham, when he realised the need for a permanent body to oversee archaeological excavations and conservation. But while the body remained largely dysfunctional in the 19th century owing to fund crunch, in the decades preceding Independence, it became very active. Bulks of the protected monuments were taken under the ASI’s wings during the 1920s and 30s, up till the 50s, officials told The Indian Express.

But in the decades after independence, the focus of successive governments was on health, education and infrastructure, rather than protecting heritage, officials said. Even within the scope of heritage, the aim was to uncover more monuments and sites, instead of conservation. So in due course, ASI officials said, many monuments and sites were lost to activities like urbanisation, construction of dams and reservoirs, and even encroachments.

As per the ASI submission in Parliament, 14 monuments have been lost to rapid urbanisation, 12 are submerged by reservoirs/dams, while 24 are untraceable, which brings the number of missing monuments to 50.

“Even now, we are grappling with an acute manpower shortage to physically man all the big and small monuments which may fall under a particular region,” an ASI official said.

The agency told the Parliamentary committee that security guards were posted at only 248 of the 3,693 monuments. “The committee notes with dismay that out of the total requirement of 7,000 personnel for the protection of monuments, the government could provide only 2,578 security personnel at 248 locations due to budgetary constraints,” the report said.

Is this the first time monuments have been reported missing?

While ASI officials said a comprehensive physical survey of all monuments has never been conducted after Independence, in 2013, a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report said that at least 92 centrally protected monuments across the country had gone missing.

The CAG report said that the ASI did not have reliable information on the exact number of monuments under its protection. It recommended that periodic inspection of each protected monument be carried out by a suitably ranked officer. The Culture ministry accepted the proposal, but there was hardly any movement.

Which monuments are missing?

The report notes that “out of the 92 monuments declared as missing by the CAG, 42 have been identified due to efforts made by the ASI.” Of the remaining 50, 26 have been accounted for, as mentioned earlier, while 24 are untraceable. The Ministry said, “Such monuments which could not be traced on ground for a considerable time because of multiple factors, despite the strenuous efforts of ASI through its field offices, were referred as Untraceable monuments.”

These include 11 in Uttar Pradesh, two each in Delhi and Haryana, and in states like Assam, West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Official sources told The Indian Express, “Many such cases pertain to inscriptions, batteries and tablets, which don’t have a fixed address. They could have been moved or damaged and it may be difficult to locate them.”

The Parliamentary panel said it was perturbed to find that the Barakhamba Cemetery in the very heart of Delhi was among the untraceable monuments. “If even monuments in the Capital cannot be maintained properly, it does not bode well for monuments in remote places in the country,” it said. Officials told the Express that the particular cemetery may have been lost to the “redevelopment of the New Delhi Railway Station”.

Other missing monuments include the Guns of Emperor Sher Shah, Tinsukia (Assam); the Ruins of Copper Temple, Paya, Lohit (Arunachal Pradesh); Kos Minar, Mujesar, Faridabad (Haryana); Kutumbari Temple, Dwarahat, Almora (Uttarakhand); Rock Inscription, Satna (Madhya Pradesh); Old European Tomb, Pune (Maharashtra); 12th Century Temple, Baran (Rajasthan); and Telia Nala Buddhist ruins, Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh).

Could there be more missing monuments?

The CAG audit included a joint physical inspection, along with the ASI, of merely 1,655 monuments out of the 3,678 on the protected list at the time. The 24 monuments reported to be untraceable are from this sample of 1,655 monuments.

“The Committee is perturbed to note that having found out that at least 24 monuments are untraceable out of the sample of monuments studied, no further surveys were conducted for the remaining monuments, even nearly a decade after the original study,” the panel said.

So does India now have fewer protected monuments?

The ASI submitted that even as the monuments lost to urbanisation or dams can be deemed gone, it will make one last attempt to locate the 24 untraceable monuments. If any of those can be traced, the missing monuments list will be pruned.

However, deleting the lost/untraceable monuments from the protected list may not be that simple. The deletion requires denotification of the said monument under Section 35 of the AMASR Act, which happens to be a long-drawn process.

Section 35 has the provision to issue notifications only for such Centrally Protected Monuments (CPMs) which, according to the central government, have ceased to be of national importance. The situation of a missing monument cannot be automatically equated with the loss of its historical importance, the committee said.

It recommended that the untraceable monuments may not be removed from the list, because once that is done, there would be no imperative to find them. Since the missing monuments cannot continue to be on the protected list either, the Committee recommended that the list of Untraceable Monuments may be maintained as such and if necessary, the AMASR Act be amended to include this terminology.