How do ancient sites and historic monuments suddenly go missing, among them archaeological wonders such as the Telia Nala Buddhist site in Varanasi , the Kos Minars along the Grand Trunk road in Haryana and Cannons of Sher Shah Suri in Tinsukia, Assam have in common ? The mystery resurfaced on 8th August 2022, when Union Culture Minister G Kishan Reddy in a written response to a question in the Lok Sabha told Parliament that 24 monuments and sites in India are “untraceable”.
How do monuments listed by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) just vanish?
Almost every year since 2013, stories of ‘missing monuments’ have been making headlines. Oddly, even though Parliament has been informed of missing monuments in 2013, 2016, 2017, 2020 and now in 2022, nothing seems to stop them from vanishing.
What is equally surprising is that we don’t know what exactly ‘missing’ or ‘untraceable’ means. For the last nine years, neither the Ministry of Culture nor the ASI has defined ‘missing’ or ‘untraceable’. Have they been encroached upon or demolished? Or was it an erroneous listing that was later deleted? Or is it just that there has been no physical verification? All that the Lok Sabha has been told is that efforts are being made to ‘trace’ these monuments using old records and satellite technology.
The issue of missing monuments first came to light when the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) published a report in 2013 titled Performance Audit of Preservation and Conservation of Monuments and Antiquities of Union Government, Ministry of Culture. It raised alarming statistics - 92 ASI listed historic monuments were reported missing.
In April 2016 and then again in August 2017, the Ministry of Culture, in two separate replies to the Lok Sabha, informed Parliament that of the 92 missing monuments, 24 remained “untraceable”; 14 were affected due to rapid urbanisation; and 12 had been submerged under reservoirs created by dams.
In August 2022, nine years after its original report (2013) on the workings of the ASI, the CAG released a fresh report titled Follow-Up on the Performance Audit of Preservation and Conservation of Monuments and Antiques’
The latest report too speaks of the missing monuments, and their fate has still not been identified.
Which Are These ‘Missing’ Monuments?
Of the 24 missing monuments, 11 are in Uttar Pradesh, two each in Delhi, Haryana , Maharashtra and Rajasthan. These missing monuments include the Telia Nala Buddhist site in Varanasi, ruins of three Shiva temples in Mirzapur dating to 1000 CE, a 12th century CE temple in Rajasthan, and several tombs and cemeteries in Lucknow. Also, in the missing list are two ‘Kos Minars’ in Haryana, Sher Shah Suri’s cannons in Tinsukia, Assam, and an European tomb in Pune, among others.
India’s Problem of Plenty
India suffers from a ‘problem of plenty’. In 2007, the Ministry of Culture launched the National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities to prepare a national database of all monuments and antiquities in the country in five years. Its period was extended by another five years (2012-17) and later merged with the ASI.
The mission was to document 4 lakh heritage structures and 58 lakh antiquities across India, but according to the 2022 CAG report, only 1.84 lakh monuments and 16.83 lakh antiquities have been documented so far.
With around 4 lakh local, state and national monuments across the country, 24 ‘missing monuments’ does not look too bad, but these numbers do not really add up.
‘Categories’ of Missing Monuments
To understand the issue of the ‘missing monuments’, we spoke to Archaeologist K K Muhammad, who worked for 24 years with the ASI before retiring in 2012 as its Regional Director (North). For one, the listing of most of these monuments was done in the pre-1947 period, and it was only the 2013 CAG report that revealed that they were ‘missing’. But, again, what does this really mean? These ‘missing’ monuments can be divided into five broad categories, with different reasons affecting them.
Monuments in Delhi and Lucknow
The first category includes monuments in places like Delhi and Lucknow. Dr Muhammad explained that when lakhs of refugees poured into these cities from Pakistan during Partition in 1947, they took shelter in a large number of ASI buildings and sites including the Purana Qila and Humayun’s Tomb. Over time, while the refugees were resettled from the important monuments, many continued to occupy the lesser-known structures like tombs, baradaris and other buildings. Over time, these structures disappeared and houses were built in their place.
The Kos Minars
Kos Minars are medieval Indian milestones that once dotted the Grand Trunk Road from Lahore in Punjab to Mandu in Madhya Pradesh. Each one marked a distance of one Kos or 3.2 km. Dr Muhammad explains that as roads shifted over centuries, a number of these pillars became enclosed in the fields of local villagers, who simply demolished them and used them as building material. In many cases, they were destroyed during road widening for highways.
On the list of 24 missing monuments, two are Kos Minars in Haryana, lost probably due to apathy.
There are a large number of Neolithic sites and Menhirs that have disappeared in the last few decades, mainly in Maharashtra and the southern states. Most of these sites were located in remote areas and grasslands. The local administration was probably unaware of the importance of these sites and monuments. So when local District Collectors would distribute lands to landless labourers , the latter would destroy these Neolithic stone mounds to build their houses.
British Cemeteries and Tombs
A number of sites in the ‘missing’ list are British cemeteries and European tombs in remote areas. Until 1947, these cemeteries and tombs were maintained by the local British community and by the Church. But after the British left India, these tombs, especially in remote areas, were abandoned and encroached upon.
Remains of Forts and Mounds
Another broad category in the missing list are the remains of temples, forts, historic mounds and random sculptures found in remote areas. Due to the absence of supervision by the local administration, they have been pillaged for their material by local villagers and have disappeared over time. While the 2013 CAG report speaks of the destruction of an ancient mound in Sejakpur in Gujarat, the 2022 report marks the disappearance of the Telia Nala Buddhist site in Varanasi. In both cases, people have built houses on top of them.
Policy Issues With ASI
The root cause of these ‘missing’ monuments are the issues that its custodian faces, in terms of policy, resources and manpower. In the 2022 CAG report, there is a damning indictment of the Archaeological Survey of India. The report states:
“ASI had no strategy or road-map (long term/medium term) to fulfil its mandate.” (Para 4.1)
The report also lists a large number of issues that the ASI faces. For example, the Central Advisory Board on Archaeology (CABA) , conceptualised as apex body to advise the ASI on matters relating to archaeology, has been inactive since March 2018. As a result, according to the CAG, “the conservation activities were being undertaken by ASI on ad-hoc/annual basis”.
For example, the biggest issue is that of encroachment, which is the first step to these monuments going ‘missing’. The CAG report states (Para 4.1):
“Despite recommendation of the PAC (Public Accounts Committee), no coordination and monitoring mechanism was established at Central or Circle levels to check the incidents of encroachment.”
Encroachment of historic sites is not a problem peculiar to remote areas; monuments in most cities have been yielding to the pressures of urbanization and growth. Thus, a National Monument Authority was constituted as a statutory body in 2011, to provide no-objection certificates to undertake construction activities in the prohibited/regulated areas of these monuments. The basic objective was to prepare Heritage Bye-Laws and Site-Plans for each monument. However, according to the CAG report, of the 3,693 Centrally Protected Monuments, Heritage Bye-Laws for only 31 monuments were notified till date, while those for 210 others were in a process of ‘consultation’.
ASI’s Lack of Manpower and Resources
Perhaps biggest challenge concerning the missing monuments and encroachments is the manpower shortage at the ASI. Overall, vacancies across departments is between 27 and 41 percent!
For example, the CAG notes how in the ASI Delhi Circle upto 24 monuments were looked after by a single Junior Conservation Assistant (Kashmiri Gate Sub-Circle). While in Aihole and Badami in Karnataka, 70 and 31 monuments respectively were being looked after by a single Conservation Assistant.
It is very difficult for a single official to manage such a large number of monuments spread over a large area. The 2022 CAG report mentions that the shortage of staff has had an adverse effect on the performance of the ASI, and also led to instances of misuse of monuments and encroachment at these sites.
So why the large number of vacancies in the ASI? Dr Muhammad says it is not just the ASI. The large number of vacancies here are a part of the broader trend in the Central Government, of not filling job vacancies in government jobs due to cost saving. For example, in July 2022, the Central Government informed the Lok Sabha that there were 9.79 lakh job vacancies in Central ministries and departments.
The annual reports of the Department of Expenditure (DoE) show that vacancies in Central Government jobs have grown from 17.8 percent in 2018, to 22.7 percent in 2019, to 21.7 per cent in 2020, and to 24.2 per cent in 2021. Looking at the broad trends, it seems unlikely that the vacancies in ASI will be filled.
The CAG report has made a number of recommendations for the improvement of the ASI’s functioning. It has suggested the use of technology to document, map and monitor monuments, which would help prevent encroachments.
Nine years have passed between the two audits of the CAG in 2013 and 2022, and yet, as the report shows, little has changed or improved. If things don’t change on the ground, this discussion will be restricted to the Question and Answer hours of the Lok Sabha.
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