Issue of shifting National Archives of India’s annexes – Explained, pointwise

Introduction

The Government of India’s Central Vista redevelopment project is being treated as a national priority amid a pandemic. The project will shift the National Museum of India, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). The project will also remove the National Archives of India’s annexes and rebuild them.

Thus, last month nearly 76 scholars, artists, writers, curators, and museum professionals highlighted major concerns associated with the project. Further, the government is also required huge government expenditure to complete the project. Shifting the National Archives of India’s annexes presents some inherent challenges to the government.

About National Archives of India(NAI)
  • National Archives of India (NAI) is a custodian of the non-current records of the enduring value of the Indian Government. It holds them in trust for the use of administrators and scholars.
  • Origin: It was originally established as the Imperial Record Department in 1891 in Calcutta(Kolkata). This department was then transferred to the new capital, New Delhi, in 1911. Later, it was shifted into the present building in 1926.
  • Nodal Ministry: It functions as an Attached Office of the Department of Culture under the Ministry of Culture.
  • Headquarters: New Delhi. It also has a Regional Office at Bhopal and three Record Centres at Bhubaneswar, Jaipur, and Pondicherry.
  • Abhilekh patal is an online portal to access the National Archives of India’s reference media and its digitized collections via the internet.
    • The name ‘Abhilekh patal’ comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Abhilekh’ meaning the records of ancient times and the word ‘patal’ meaning the platform, board, or surface.
Significance of National Archives of India:

Several centuries of India’s history lie in the documents that make up the National Archives of India. It has a vast corpus of records viz., public records, oriental records among others which constitute an invaluable source of information.

  • The archival records include 4.5 million files, 25,000 rare manuscripts, more than 100,000 maps, treaties, 280,000 premodern documents, and several thousand private papers. It is the biggest archival repository in South Asia.
  • According to UNESCO, the birchbark and clay-coated Gilgit Manuscripts in the National Archives are, “the oldest surviving manuscripts in India”. These include “canonical and non-canonical Buddhist works that throw light on the evolution of Sanskrit, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Mongolian, Manchu and Tibetan religion-philosophical literature”.
  • The annexe also houses the cartography section and 1,50,000 oriental records in Persian, Arabic, and Urdu.
  • The National Archives Annexe also hosted technical training in the preservation and allied subjects for archivists across India.
  • Further, The National Archives’ “Annexe” is also called as the “Research Room” among historians. They conduct their historical research, Ph.D research in the Annexe building.

The loss or damage to any single object or archival record will cause an irrevocable loss.

Justifications in shifting the National Archives of India’s annexes
  1. Better maintenance of Archives:  A series of articles published in The New York Times in 2012, highlighted the vulnerable state of the National Archives. The articles mention that Indian archives are exposed to humid weather, staff negligence and mishandling, and improper preservation methods. This led to ruining of national archives. The articles especially mentioned the vulnerability of letters penned by Mohandas K. Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, Gopalkrishna Gokhale, and other eminent Indian nationalists in particular.
    • With the shift to a new place, the new annexe building can provide a better environment for maintaining the archives in a better way.
  2. Enhanced display potential of national archives in the future: At present, there is a lack of expertise to manage certain national archives. This leads to the locking up of some rare documents in Persian, Urdu, Arabic, Sanskrit, Prakrit, Tamil, Malayalam, and Modi (records from Maharashtra). With the new annexe building, these factors can also be considered and provide better access to Indian historians and students.
  3. The move is in line with international practices. For instance, the Egyptian Government is planning to replace the crowded Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in Cairo with an impressive Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza.
Challenges in shifting the National Archives of India’s annexes
  1. Division of cultural buildings: the vision of a single, linked cultural district is disregarded in the Central Vista Redevelopment Project.
    • For instance, the existing architecture plan has four cultural buildings which are arranged to form a single, linked cultural district. (Archaeological Survey of India, the National Museum, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, the National Archives).
    • However, according to the Central Vista Redevelopment Projectall four cultural buildings will be set up in different places. Similarly, the new annexe building may not be physically connected to the National Archives of India
  2. The scale of arranging packers and movers for each of the archives poses a big logistical challenge. The packers and movers have to count the moisture, humidity, temperature changes, etc. that can impact the archives.
  3. Lack of safety: Many buildings in the North and South Blocks are structurally unsafe. They are also ill-equipped to meet even the basic fire and earthquake safety norms. Moving prestigious assets such as national museums and national archives to that location will make the assets more vulnerable.
  4. Lack of public data: National Archives of India website as of now do not have any notification about the demolition, plans for the safe removal of materials, and any indication of how long access might be cut off for the public.
  5. Make Indian historians in a disadvantaged state in a short time: Outside India, the British Library is one of the largest repositories for India’s Colonial archives. To shift the National archives of India to a new place, it has to be closed for an indefinite time (until the proper shift to a new place is done). Historians around the world have access to British libraries have the exclusive right to write Indian history as Indian historians cannot access national archives. This will create differential access among students, researchers, and scholars located in India and abroad
Suggestions to shift the National Archives of India’s annexe building
  1. Wider public consultation is the need of the hour: The Indian government should arrange for public consultation. For example, the Federal Government of the United States decided to move the National Archive, there were extensive public consultations. No such measures were taken in India.
  2. Getting adequate information from global practices: Many best global practices are available on shifting national archives. For example, The British Library’s guide on “Moving Library and Archive Collections” is concise and comprehensive. India can follow such a guide to shift the national archives without any disruption.
  3. Bring in private talent: The government can bring in the private sector to construct a world-class building within the next two years as part of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). This will not only reduce government expenditure but also bring in new talents, faster completion of projects, etc.

The National Archives is the primary repository of documents on India’s past. With the advancement in technology, the speed of excavations in the country increased manifold. This would generate greater artefacts in the future, that would require bigger storage space. So, the government has to use the pandemic to shift not only the National Archives of India but also the National Museum and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts.

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