Indian Railways’ to carry out massive Archival journey to chug along 2.5 billion Pages of History

National Informatics Centre or C-DAC or RailTel to take up the project of digital archiving that which include documents, land details, maps, photographs, orders, time tables, technical diagrams, various manuscripts among others which are older than 150 years!
The above System Map of Indian Railways was released by the then Surveyor General of India (British Rule) in the year 1909. The map contains the geographies of the then undivided India comprising of present day Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma geographies too. It was a routine practice to publish the Indian Railway maps every year since 1859 by the Britishers. This practice continued till 1950. Later on the exercise of publishing the Systems Map of Railways was transferred to the Ministry of Railways, Government of India.

NEW DELHI: The Indian Railways is not just the country’s largest transporter of people and goods but also a window to India’s history.

But even little of this history is not archived. In order to sift through 2.2-2.5 billion pages, and catalogue and preserve some of them, the Railways is taking the largest-ever technology exercise by digitising its archives across the country.

The century-old railways archives include land documents, maps, documents, orders, time tables, photographs, technical diagrams, engineering drawings, letters, annual reports, manuscripts, books and manuals. This will be the first planned effort to have a pan-Indian digital repository for the Indian Railways, which has not even a central archive. Many of these documents are with various zonal railways.

This could turn out to be the largest digitisation of archives by any organisation in India. As an initial step, the Railway Board took a decision last week to cover about 2.2 million pages of the archival material of the National Rail Museum (NRM) in New Delhi and Rail Museum at Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu.

According to an official at one of these museums, since the archives include government documents, of which many may be confidential, the Railways may be engaging a Central government agency for the project. “It may well be the National Informatics Centre, or C-DAC, that will take up the project,” he said.

The ministry has sanctioned Rs 30 million for the first phase of the project. This includes coming up with a standard meta data protocol for digitising railway records, scanning printed documents in digital format for archival purposes, and creating a backbone information technology infrastructure at the NRM to store the data. The Railways might also launch a digital service for browsing the archives both through on-site kiosks and web browsing.

“The Railways will be having rich resources that are deeply associated with the history of India. For example: A very vital breakthrough on Mohenjo Daro civilisation was done while laying a railway track in the 1920s,” said archaeologist K K Muhammed, who is a mentor for the railway’s heritage preservation initiatives.

It was after this incident that historians realised that Indian civilisation is as old as Mesopotamian, he said.

After independence, when railway zones were created, each of the zonal headquarters became the store house of these archival materials.

Even though a few zones have digitised some documents, no standardised scanning protocol was followed and digital versions are not searchable either. In the late 1990s, the railways came out with three-volume archival documents. “A biggest task will be to revive those archives, many of which may be in a dilapidated state,” said a person close to the development.

This comes at a time when the Google Cultural Institute is set to provide a virtual tour of the museum and a digital repository of its heritage assets of railways for online access free of cost.

On the cards

  • The first phase of the project will cover 2.2 million pages of the archives of the National Rail Museum in Delhi and Rail Museum in Tiruchirapalli
  • Railways will come out with a standard metadata protocol for digitisation of records
  • It will also create the backbone information technology infrastructure at NRM to store data.