Preserving the minutiae of Indian diplomacy - digitally

May 20th, 2008 - 1:53 pm ICT by admin  

By Devirupa Mitra
New Delhi, May 20 (IANS) They are filled with the minutiae of 60 years of Indian diplomacy. But now files that have remained under mothballs and layers of dust have been painstakingly archived digitally. Over the last two years, nearly 12 million of these pages have been scanned, tagged, indexed and stored in digital disks by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).

As a result, the legacy of India’s foreign policy - - intelligence reports, mission despatches, policy papers, meeting minutes - may finally be preserved for future generations.

Since independence, the files had been stored in a dozen odd rooms at ‘hutments’ behind the imposing red sandstone South Block.

“All the files were getting decayed. The building itself was in a very bad state, with pieces of walls falling down at several places. You had to enter the rooms with a handkerchief on your face,” a senior MEA official told IANS on condition of anonymity.

The MEA does go through periodic ‘weeding’ of its records, but departments taking care of various territorial divisions keep the most-referred files in cupboards lining the corridors of the South Block.

But the ministry recently completed digitising nearly 5.5 million files that had been lying in its archives.

Incidentally, the Public Record Rules of 1997 say that government records that are more than 25 years old should be moved to the National Archives - but only if they are declassified.

The project began in 2006, when the then foreign secretary, Shyam Saran, raised concerns about the sad state of storage facilities.

The first priority therefore was to carry out urgently required civil works in the building, then to bring in special shelves and compactors for the files and install de-humidifiers.

The actual scanning was outsourced to a contractor, whose employees were security cleared to do the work - which is not surprising, as all the files were classified. In fact, all of them worked under constant scrutiny of closed circuit television cameras mounted inside the rooms.

At one time, nearly 60 people, all of them security cleared, were involved in taking out the files, scanning them and giving them tags. The records were indexed with the date of document to the country, territorial division and classification.

Then, the files were laminated to prevent them from future decay. While the backlog of files has been digitised, now the ministry is debating how the data is to be accessed.

“There are serious security concerns on how to give access and to whom,” he said.

A backup of the entire data - some eight to 10 terabytes - will also be kept at another location, most probably Hyderabad, as part of a disaster management set-up.

So far, putting the entire archives on the ministry intranet has been ruled out. Two terminals have been provided at the storage building itself for authorised users to see the files concerned.

One of the proposals is to encrypt the scanned file images on to a central server. The request for access will be routed through the ministry’s archives and the record management division, in consultation with the territorial division.

Once the appropriate software is installed, there may be special terminals kept for access in different sections. “The files would be sent, encrypted and accessed only through the fingerprints of authorised users,” he said.

There are also plans to give some of the important digital records to the territorial sections, but no decision has been taken yet.

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