Shahid Amin and the Review of the Public Records Act

Review of Public Records Act, 1993 & Rules, 1997 June 2009

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The Public Records Act was supposed to ensure that Indian citizens eventually had access to the proceedings and files of government. The Act is crucial to the writing of Indian history, and to all who have an interest in questions of access to political information.

Though it was intended to ensure that Ministries deposit their files, once closed, in the National Archives of India, Delhi, in reality, documents are usually censored prior to being sent to the Archives.

Some Ministries do not send their files to the archive at all. Read civil servant, Naved Masood’s critique of this process and the working of the Act posted on this blog.

A committee set up by government reviewed the Act, and this note was circulated to members of the public by the Government of India. See Shahid Amin’s response below.

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Response to the 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 around 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 the absence of a 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 international 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 technology 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 seemed 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!

Response from Partha Chatterjee

I too warmly welcome the initiative taken by Mr Masood.

On the one hand, we now have legislation on Right to Information which should, in principle, lead to the transfer to the official archives of all government records after a statutory period of time and open access thereafter for all scholars. Secrecy should not be a consideration after the statutory 30 or 40 years. Bureaucrats have often told me that it is not secrecy that is the main problem, but lack of staff and resources to do the sorting and classification of old records in the departments before they are transferred to the archives. As is well known, unlike in colonial times, the government in India is no longer run “by record”. Systems of filing and classification are utterly chaotic in both Central and State government departments. To put old records into some sort of order (classification, index, etc) for them to be made usable in the archives is clearly not a matter of priority. I suspect this is where a lot of effort and some resources will have to be put in.

We might also remember that the days of paper records may be coming to an end, even in Indian government. These may be the last years for which historians of the future will have to leaf through dusty files.

Partha Chatterjee

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