There is a buzz of activity on the sprawling premises of Kolkata’s Indian Museum. Workers are busy mixing cement with sand in corners, officials are bustling past each other with stacks of papers in their hands and the shrill drone of electric drills is a continuous background noise. The museum is celebrating its bicentennial in the first week of February and everyone seems to be in a hurry to meet the deadline for a grand celebration. Founded in 1814, the museum is regarded as the earliest and largest in India and Asia Pacific region. In recent years, it has also earned the dubious reputation of being the most controversy-mired one. And the damage to the 2,200-year-old Rampurva Lion Capital during the ongoing renovation work seems to be just the tip of the iceberg.
Worse, none of the top brass seems inclined to speak openly about what ails the institution. The renovation work is being monitored by West Bengal Governor M K Narayanan, who is also chairman of the museum’s board of trustees. When contacted after the incident, Narayanan said, “Nothing has been broken as far as I know.”
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Attempts were also made to push the incident under the carpet. When some staff members of the museum protested, the authorities hurriedly appointed an internal inquiry committee.
“Things are quite murky here,” admits a senior official on condition of anonymity. Recently, rumours abounded that a runaway boy had spent the night beside a 4,000-year-old Egyptian mummy at the museum. In 2010, the same Egyptian mummy had been found damaged. The Harappan Gallery has been closed for a decade now. Then there were questions raised on the safety of artefacts as the security gadgets were either defunct or underutilised.
“The CCTV cameras don’t work beyond 5 pm, which is ridiculous. Theft is least likely to occur during working hours. The museum remains unmonitored all night,” says a senior official.
Security at the museum has been a concern for more than a decade now. In December 2004, a 7th century sandstone bust of the Buddha was stolen from the archaeology gallery.
It is, however, the recent flush of funds that has raised more questions. The Union Culture Ministry sanctioned Rs 120 crore for renovation in the current financial year and another Rs 20 crore each for four successive years. The National Building Construction Company has been engaged for the work. “The museum authorities proposed to the Central government that a project manager, project officer and a project assistant would regulate the expenditure and oversee the work,” says a senior officer. Basudev Dasgupta was appointed as the Officer on Special Duty and Project Manager. He is also the Drawing and Disbursing officer of the project, who is supposed to ensure that financial matters are in order. “How can he hold both the posts?” asks a senior officer.
When we meet him in his well-appointed office, Dasgupta is a picture of confidence. “You are going to ask me uncomfortable questions, aren’t you? Do I have the liberty to not answer them?” he smiles.
The Rampurva Lion Capital incident was a case of misunderstanding, he claims. As per media reports, the Lion Capital was being shifted from one lobby to another using chains and pulleys when the seven-foot sculpture fell and broke into two.
Says Dasgupta, “The risk of damaging the Lion Capital would have been greater had we used a forklift, as the statue could have toppled and broken into pieces.” He also claims the statue came to them broken and painted black. “Sandstone can’t be black; it seems it was coated for protection and that, due to some chemical reaction, turned black,” he says.
G M Kapur of the Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) questions this. “Even if the use of hydraulic forklift was not an option, I wonder if it is that difficult to take proper precautions to ensure untoward incidents like this don’t happen. And how did a sandstone structure turn black? What kind of protective coating was used?” he asks.
Dasgupta, for his part, also dismisses the rumour of a boy stuck in the Egyptian gallery. “How can he survive in an airtight room for more than 12 hours? CCTV footage shows that he hadn’t entered before 5 pm and we close after that,” he says.
Brushing off questions over funds, Dasgupta adds: “We are introducing four new galleries and have spent Rs 40 crore on them. Next month we will spend another Rs 50 crore. The rest of the money will be spent in phases. There is complete transparency.”
But the history of the museum says otherwise. In 2008, when the Union Culture Ministry ordered a full audit, it was found that “a lot of objects were missing, including Indus Valley civilisation relics, and gold and silver coins. Besides, some of the ancient acquisitions, for which the museum paid crores, were discovered to be fake,” says a senior official who has been with the museum since the 1990s.
The CBI was also asked to check financial irregularities. “Senior officials acquired equipment at inflated rates. Large sums were spent on printing and travel expenses. There was a scam involving security equipment, most of which are now defunct. Walkie-talkies were purchased at unbelievably inflated prices. Fake companies won bids for equipment and substandard stuff was procured,” says the official, going on to allege that “petty criminals from neighbouring states were given refuge in the staff quarters till the government intervened”.
The renovation work has now exposed the priceless collection to hundreds of labourers. “I know for a fact that a police verification has not been conducted on most of the unskilled workers. People can just walk in,” says the officer.
“We have museum guards in charge of artefacts. They keep a hawk’s eye on them,” replies security officer Captain Sumanta Roy. The problem of CCTV cameras not working beyond 5 pm is a “simple procedural one”, he adds. “We have acquired state-of-the-art equipment; they will be functional 24×7.”