Shri Govind Mohan
Union Ministry of Culture
Dear Shri Govind Mohan,
I have come across a disturbing news report today (https://swarajyamag.com/news-brief/rationalise-the-number-of-monuments-of-national-importance-says-economic-advisory-council-led-by-sanjeev-sanyal) that the PM’s Economic Advisory Council (EAC) is considering a report titled “Monuments of National Importance — Urgent Need for rationalisation’ authored by Sanjeev Sanyal, pointing out that “the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)’s list of MNIs (Monuments of National Importance) has risen to an ‘unwieldy’ 3,695”
Apparently, the above report seeks to “rationalize” the number of MNIs and compress the statutory buffer zone (prohibited area) of 100 meters around archaeological monuments to permit constructions. The above cited report apparently considers the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (AMASR) Act of 1958 to be outdated, calling for major changes.
Whoever has thought of AMASR to be outdated and whoever feels that the prohibited area around archaeological sites needs to be compressed, is apparently unaware of the problems faced in protecting archaeological sites and their evidentiary value in interpreting the history of the country.
But for the stringent provisions of the AMASR, drafted in 1958 by the then government, on the basis of expert views of visionary archaeologists, whatever that remains today on the ground in terms of valuable archaeological evidence, would not have been available to the present generation. It is unfortunate that those who are blissfully unaware of and insensitive to the importance of archaeology, should start passing judgements on the AMASR and make proposals that would result in damaging and effacing whatever archaeological evidence that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the State archaeological departments have so far been able to salvage.
For a long time, real estate developers have been eying the lands surrounding archaeological sites and monuments for commercial development, especially in view of urbanisation around those sites and land values skyrocketing. The successive governments have somehow resisted the temptation of caving in to those pressures. Apparently, those who are expected to render prudent advice to the present government have fallen prey to such a temptation to allow real estate interests to override national heritage. The least I can say is that, if what has been reported is factually correct, it is a highly unfortunate development that every right thinking citizen should question.
The reason for the AMASR and, the regulations made under it, notifying three buffers of 100 meters each (“prohibited”, “protected” and “regulated”) around an archaeological site is to ensure that no heavy construction activity is permitted, which could endanger the fragile foundations of the archaeological remains. Anyone with some sense of history and appreciation for the need to protect national heritage would understand why the concept of a buffer zone has been adopted. UNESCO has generally been encouraging such a concept to be complied with in the case of all world heritage sites. Many countries have put in place statutory regulations for protecting their own archaeological sites.
Apparently, this idea of “rationalising” NMIs has originated from those who call themselves “economists”. They should seriously ponder over the methodology used by them in attributing an economic value to an archaeological site, which has not only its intrinsic value as perceived by the people today but also as a potential value as perceived by the future generations. How does one call one monument more important than another, as each monument has a sentimental value of its own for the local communities and the question of “rationalising” their number defies even economic logic.
I suggest that the government be wary of tinkering with the AMASR in any manner, as it has stood the test of time. In my view, it would be highly imprudent to relax the concept of buffer zones. To permit commercial and real estate development of land around an archaeological site would be a highly short-sighted approach to development. Kindly drop all such proposals forthwith, as it will open the floodgates to a large-scale spoliation of the valuable historical evidence that we are left with as on date.
Coming back to the bizarre idea of “unwieldy” number of monuments, instead of compressing the number, the government should strengthen both the ASI and the State archaeology departments by encouraging archaeology profession to be pursued in academic institutions on a much larger scale than now, as many of potential archaeological sites are yet to be excavated and more and more archaeological evidence is bound to emerge in the future. New technologies for exploration need to be inducted into future archaeological exploration efforts.
E A S Sarma
Former Secretary to Government of India