The Comptroller and Auditor General recently filed a report that 92 monuments protecte by the Archaeological Survey of India have gone missing over the years. The ASI has since ‘redeemed’ itself by its riposte that 47 out of the 92 have since been traced and the others had vanished years ago and the records were not updated owing to oversight. All this fills us with no confidence in either the way the CAG did its survey or the methods that the ASI uses to protect its structures. It is a miracle that more buildings, icons and precincts haven’t gone.

Listed among the missing monuments were two Chennai-based monuments – Hynmer’s Obelisk in the Law College premises and the remnant of the old town wall on Old Jail Road. Both of them are very much there unless, of course, the CAG is looking for the rest of the town wall which, incidentally, was demolished in the 1850s (in which case the ASI takes really long to update its records). But what is interesting is that the monument that has really vanished, the Powney Vault, which stood next to Hynmer’s Obelisk, finds no mention. The enclosure in which several members of the Powney family were buried has, most likely, fallen victim to the Metro rail development. This must have been allowed by citing that the Justice Padmanabhan Committee list does not specifically include the Vault by name.

Having said that, it must be pointed out that there is very little to rejoice about, for the ASI has not really covered itself in glory. Both the town wall and Hynmer’s Obelisk have lost much of their sheen. The former was ‘renovated’ in complete Kollywood style a few years ago. The rampart is now a park brought back to life but the arched entry and the steps are eyesores with several commemoration plaques haphazardly placed. This is hardly the manner in which a historic monument is to be treated. Hynmer’s Obelisk is now more or less lost to view, entry being through several barricades and trenches and an unfriendly security guard. Experience has taught us that monuments that are lost to sight vanish over a period of time.

Other Chennai-based monuments that are really protected by the ASI (which in reality means nothing more than a blue signboard that threatens vandals with dire consequences) have not fared better. A correspondent, as readers of this publication are aware, discovered the Bulkley tomb after much difficulty. The condition of the sepulchre is bad and it has survived only because it is a massive piece of granite. The Fort is no better. The ASI may take cover under the plea that the precinct suffers from multiple ownership, but it has done precious little to take care of what are indisputably its own properties within the Fort. Lack of funds and manpower is the usual excuses given, but for how long?

Which brings us to the point at issue. Is the ASI really capable of handling the protection of monuments? Its charter and guidelines were drafted when Lord Curzon was Viceroy and at a time when most monuments were standing in vast open spaces. Today with congestion and encroachments being the chief threats, the organisation has to reinvent itself. It has to look at public-private partnerships, imaginatively promote its monuments in the manner in which it is done abroad, and take steps to garner funds independently and not merely through the sale of low-priced entry tickets. It has to look at making its monuments visitor-friendly and ensure that basic amenities are available for visitors. (When was the last time you needed to visit the toilet at a historic monument?) And it needs a properly trained and dedicated watch-and-ward force, not the kind that merely shoos away visitors and prevents the taking of photographs.