Government files, even those that are routine, are crucial papers that are part and parcel of governance and need to be secured safely for departmental work or even the archives. The safe keep of files and documents deemed sensitive is considered sacrosanct at all times.
In India, the Public Records Act 1993 requires the central government, state government and statutory bodies to follow certain processes while maintaining records. It is aided and supported by the Public Record rules, 1997, which provide for the procedural detail to be followed. Every government office has to nominate a records officer responsible for maintaining files and create a departmental records room for storage. After all, files can be required at the drop of a hat.
But it is highly doubtful whether Home Guard Anil Kumar was aware of such distinct rules of administration when he went to sleep on the night of November 18 in the district commandant’s office where the muster rolls of personnel deployed in the Gautam Budh Nagar since 2014 were kept in safe custody. When he woke up in the middle of the night, his room was bolted from outside, the records in the adjacent room deliberately set on fire.
Officials say it is a major blow to investigations in the Home Guard scam. The Yogi Adityanath government has ordered a probe into the destruction of the attendance logs, which the police believe was a deliberate act. The scam came to light when it was found that a few platoon commandants got inflated salaries disbursed for Home Guards in Gautam Budh Nagar by forging their attendance register.
Vanishing without a trace
In a country where critical government files disappear magically or are gutted in unexplained, if strategic fires, this misdemeanor is relatively of a smaller order. There is virtually no important case since Independence where documents have not vanished without a trace. No estimate can possibly be made of the impact it has had on the legal progress of cases, some of which have very high profile indeed.
Consider the following:
** Crucial files of the Coal Ministry are missing in the infamous coal block allocation scam that had rocked the UPA government and continues to dangle like the proverbial Damocles Sword over the Congress Party even today. The charges of conspiracy to save significant figures in the last government, has not eased.
** Similarly, critical files on the Ayodhya Land Dispute, despite the recent Supreme Court judgment, are missing.
** Last year, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) had asked the Defence Ministry to trace and share with it all missing files related to the Bofors scandal, according to its two members.
** Official records relating to the 2002 riots in Gujarat were destroyed in line with regulations, the government informed the Nanavati Panel set up by the Supreme Court to probe the riots in 2008. Documents with records of telephone calls and the movements of officials during the riots were destroyed in 2007, five years after their origin. Officials claim this is standard practice and in line with civil service rules.
** Important files relating to murders during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots have gone missing from the government records in Kanpur. More than 125 Sikhs were killed in this UP industrial town.
**A Special Investigation team (SIT) report on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots is untraceable.
** A confidential March 19 report by the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) had blamed former Maharashtra chief ministers Vilasrao Deshmukh and Sushil Kumar Shinde for flouting rules in the allotment of MHADA land to 27 influential individuals between 1999 and 2004. A file of the report, in the possession of the principal secretary of Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, was lost in the June 21 fire in the Mantralaya in Mumbai. The fire, which killed five people, also destroyed files related to the Rs 300-crore scam in Pune on government land allotments during 1995-2004.
In August last year, the Union Law ministry revealed that 149 case files are missing from several high courts in the country. The Calcutta High Court accounts for 106 of them. The Minister of State for Law PP Chaudhary told Parliament that the high courts have since then installed CCTV cameras in their vaults where documents are stored.
Says former Chief Election Commissioner and Union Home Secretary N Gopalaswami: “While there could be mischief, the storage of files and documents in cramped government offices needs to be improved. Staff has to be made better aware of firefighting infrastructure.”
Strangely, it is not the absence of laws and procedures that are hurting the system. The Manual of Office Procedure compiled by the Central Secretariat details instructions on how files should be prepared, numbered and stored. Add to it the Manual of Departmental Security Instructions, 1994, that lays down procedures for classifying files as secret. Sadly, this manual hasn’t been made public in India.
Such a reckless attitude towards critical government documentation, which can influence politics as well as policy, should have made digitilisation mandatory in this country. However, adopting it has been a relatively slow process, hampered by multiple factors; from poor telecom and broadband infrastructure, erratic supply of electricity, a rent-seeking government machinery that prefers opacity to continue in provision of services and the reluctance of the political class to put its papers in order, lest it comes to haunt a government when it is out of power.
Ranjit Bhushan is an independent journalist and former Nehru Fellow at Jamia Millia University. In a career spanning more than three decades, he has worked with Outlook, The Times of India, The Indian Express, the Press Trust of India, Associated Press, Financial Chronicle and DNA.