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Losing history by the by

Records: In a dank, dark and dusty room at Changlingmethang National Stadium in Thimphu, thousands of government documents are rotting. Rodents and roaches are making a fare out of them, shredding narrative lines of the nation’s development history into a million useless pieces every day.

Why and how do government documents end up there, some might be prompted to ask, and of their worth if Memelakha landfill is not where they are going.

The answer, of course, is simple: poor archiving culture. When offices run short of space to store old documents, they have to be shoved in somewhere. So it is here, in the leaky rooms of the stadium, they finally come to and are left to decay.

Two years ago, Denmark and Bhutan launched a joint project to document how partnership between the two countries evolved over the years.

Researchers found vital information, many of them astonishingly detailed, not from the government offices where they thought documents would be stored but from a room beneath the stadium. Many files that would have otherwise provided the researchers with clearer picture of development history were found significantly damaged. From whatever could be salvaged from the filth was later made a book called Bhutan-Denmark: Developing a Partnership though 35 Years.

“There are interesting, historically important documents there. We need to preserve these documents. We need a digital archiving centre,” said Gopilal Acharya, one of the authors of the book. “Five or ten years down the line, if Bhutanese writers and researchers need to get at important documents, there won’t be anything left there. We will have lost a vast amount of our histories. They deserve to be preserved.”

In the room are files since Bhutan launched its first planned development initiatives in the early 1960s. There are records of what ministers decided for the country’s development behind the closed doors. The documents have important historical significance because therein are records of what a particular minister or officer in charge said and did with regards to planning and shaping of the nation that had just come out of self-imposed isolation. Among the files are also speeches and kashos of the kings.

It is not enough that people know Bhutan faced great resource challenge as the country opened up and initiated development programmes. A rotting document in that stinky, dust-filled room in the stadium tells us that in June 13, 1986, a meeting chaired by the then Foreign Minister Dawa Tshering was held. Five senior officials of the Planning Commision and Ministry of Foreign Affairs attended the meeting. The document quotes Deputy Minister of Planning Commission, Lam Penjor, reminding his colleagues that there is “big gap in resources required and the resources that may be available for the VIth Plan”. Ten European countries, one from North America, six from Asia, seven from the Middle East, and Australia were then identified as potential bilateral funding sources.

“I am not at all happy with our archiving culture. We are currently working on developing the Archives Act that will be an important legal instrument,” said Kunzang Delek, Chief Archivist of National Library and Archives of Bhutan (NLAB) in Thimphu. The major goal of the Act is to conserve national heritage, reduce corruption and enhance good governance. NLAB, said Kunzang Delek, could help all government offices by training officials to archive important documents systematically. NLAB conserves document in three forms – paper, digital and microfilm. So can be done with important government document of historical value.

Said Kunzang Delek: “Our children will blame us for not saving information that they would one day seek. National Assembly, for instance, is a good source of documents because it has records of development issues from all the gewogs and villages. We should archive them all.”

Dr Karma Phuntsho, director of Loden Foundation, thinks that it is of paramount importance to archive and preserve the state records. Besides serving as information sources for posterity to understand the historical process of governance, administration, taxation, demography, among others, government documents will also give the people clues in the future to solve certain problems. “As a nation, it is important to have a strong historical consciousness. Without history, there is no civilisation and our historical knowledge fully depends on such archives and records.”

NLAB and Department of Information Technology and Telecom are planning e-Libraries in all the 20 dzongkhags. But their functions, as can be understood from the discussions hitherto, are not very clear. The plan is yet to mature.

In the meanwhile, where else will old government documents go and what will happen to them? How much of development history will the country be losing, in the meanwhile?

By Jigme Wangchuk

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