Response to proposal to amend the Public Records Act by Shahid Amin

 

The Committee has recorded the views of the few worthies who responded to their questionnaire. They seem to have gone on a tangent and have addressed certain procedural issues and recommended purely procedural matters.  To my mind, the Committee has not quite addressed the central issue regarding the real problem with the transfer of post-independence (and even pre-independence) records to the NAI.  The problem with the Archives is not that the Act comes in the way of smooth transfer of post-independence records; rather, the problem is that the Act does not really lay down any specific mechanism to ensure that such transfers become smooth affairs  — the amendments proposed do not relate to this aspect.

There are two alternative routes to tackle the issue;

 

A.   An essentially redrafted Act which converts NAI into a statutory body; enacts the concept of “intermediate custody” of the specified records (i.e. create a species of record where copies reach the archives much before the record itself becomes ‘archivable’; and brings archival expertise within the Ministry;

OR

 

B. Draw up a scheme of Archival Reforms and implement it as an executive measure.

 

The problem as I see it, is that NAI having authored and got the PR Act in 1993, now feels that Archival Reforms must be woven round the statute. As it happens, the present legislation does not address the main problem, hence the disconnect (at least in my opinion)

 

The news of proposed revision of the PR Act, and the recent amendments in the Rules which has allowed a substantial presence of academic end-users on the Archival Advisory Board d has generated a great deal of interest and excitement among scholars in  India and abroad. The Committee has very kindly given full expression to these views.

 

We have a great opportunity before us, of redrawing the rules of access to public records. What is needed is an out of box approach. Once we put forward the radical importance of greater and faster accessibility to Public Records, with the NAI converted into a statutory body, incorporating the concept of ‘intermediate custody’, then purely procedural issues, such as absence of proper record room, or of adequate manpower become secondary. Without this we would succeed in only tinkering with the PR Act of 1993: the need of the hour, the  progress of scholarship on India (as also compliance with the highest internationals standards) is to make the transfer, through intermediate custody of  generated records at dd. NAI,  as much a statutory responsibility of the concerned authorities, as the creation of records  which is the sin quo non of decision making and  good governance. It is only then that good governance and transparency in governance will become the two faces of the coin of a New India. The techonology for this already exists. If the GOI can legislate to hold  personal details of  over 1 billion individual residents of the country in trust for developmental and governance purposes, and hold these in trust on behalf of the sovereign people of India, surely the chief repository of records of GoI, the new, statutorily empowered NAI, can hold records generated by the different governmental agencies, in intermediate custody till they are thrown open to public.

 

I suggest that all of us concerned with a change in the PR Act, relook at the novel proposals contained in the note prepared by S, Note Shri Naved Masood, IAS, as a starting point for a radical rethink, not simply about amendments to the existing PR Act, but the statutory revival of the NAI in a very different incarnation. This would involve finally ridding ourselves of the enabling clauses, as well as the fetters, on record availability laid down over a century ago by the redoubtable Lord. Curzon.

 

Post scriptum:

 

  • It is well to remind ourselves of the irony that one of the primary purpose of the colonial Indian Historical Records Commission, which has seems to have gone into an advanced stage of dotage, was  to prevent the natives from accessing the records kept at the Imperial Records Rooms! That was why early Indian historians had to make do with Selections from the Records from the GoI, which the then Government, through the Commission, thought safe for the ‘native historians’ to have access to!

 

 

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