The geological evolution and natural history of the Indian landmass makes for an incredible story, etched and recorded as it is in every rock that we see around is. Every time we pulverise one for construction, which seems to be the most common activity in the country, we unintentionally destroy a part of Earth’s history.
India is a unique geological entity, an informative natural history museum showcasing how this ancient land has been treaded by spectacular creatures over millions of years against the backdrop of strange-looking plants and trees, watered and washed by primitive rivers and oceans, all undergoing unending cycles of destruction and rebirth. Our country thus exposes an awe-inspiring geodiversity representing a variety of geological features, including rocks, minerals, fossils and landscapes that evolved over billions of years and which tell us the cosmic tale of our origins.
Our geological history starts with our planet slowly transforming itself into a ‘pale blue dot’ in the Solar System. At first, there was much tumult thanks to the meteoritic bombardments in the early Archean period, which later gave way to more stable times. Landmasses evolved to become continents and supercontinents; the conveyor-belt system of tectonic plate movements was inexorable in its movements, and kept changing the spatial configuration and composition of continents and oceans, influencing the distribution of plants and animals. In this way, India itself gained its first independence from a continental super-assembly called Gondwana, named after the Gond tribe of central India, around 180 million years ago.
Its journey after this break-up – starting from somewhere in the southern hemisphere, eventually covering more than 7,000 km in about 200 million years – eventually brought India to its current destination, where it docked with the Eurasian plate and formed the Himalaya. The Himalaya is the birthplace of several great rivers as well as the centrepiece of the monsoon system, which affects the weather around the world. All these events together have deeply impacted biodiversity and human evolution.
India’s non-cultural heritage
The most dramatic geologic markers representing each of those events are preserved in the Indian landscape and should be considered our non-cultural heritage. Geological conservation seeks to ensure the survival of the best representative example of the country’s geological features and events so that everyone can better appreciate one of the world’s best natural laboratories. Sadly, however, geological conservation remains only languishes in our collective blindspot.
India’s citizens should ensure that such treasures aren’t encroached upon, and eventually made to disappear by the ever-expanding built environment. I have seen it happen in Kutch, Gujarat, where Mesozoic formations containing valuable geological information and fossils are being scooped up to level the ground in preparation for the construction of highways and industrial projects. If the Land Acquisition Act stands accused of doing little to protect our forests, it has also failed our geological heritage. Indeed, our geological heritage has become nobody’s baby. How did we get here?
One of the principal reasons for such public apathy is the abysmal geological literacy, even among the most educated people. Even though India has many professional geological societies and science academies, geology remains off limits in school syllabi. For example, most of those who have watched the Hollywood film Jurassic Park (1993) may not know that a major part of the evolutionary history of dinosaurs was pieced together using fossils collected from India’s Mesozoic rift valley regions, such as the Pranhita-Godavary valley and Kutch. These literal ‘Jurassic parks’ were the breeding, hunting and playing grounds of a variety of dinosaurs until the catastrophic Deccan volcanism at the end of the Cretaceous period, about 66 million years ago.
The complete skeleton of the Barapasaurus, a gigantic herbivorous dinosaur about 18 m long and weighing about seven tonnes, is exhibited at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. The question arises: Why has the spectacular skeleton of a dinosaur been hung up in a statistical institute and not in a state-of-the art Earth museum? Many of you may not have heard about the 236,000-year-old fossil called the Narmada Man (later found to be female) discovered in Hathmora, Madhya Pradesh in 1982. Where is this invaluable asset to be found today?
It is not clear why India has not framed a law to setup geo-parks and to safeguard sites of geo-heritage. The US framed its version of such a law in the early 1920s. Other countries like Canada, China, Spain and the UK have suitable provisions to preserve and conserve the geo-heritage of their countries.
Following the example of biodiversity hubs, geological conservation should also be made a factor in land-use planning, and a stringent legal framework needs to be evolved to support such strategies. UNESCO adopted the World Heritage Convention in its general conference on November 16, 1972, and India ratified this convention five years later. Interestingly, Article 5 casts certain obligations, among other things, on each party state to ensure effective appropriate legal, technical, financial and other measures are taken to identify, protect, conserve and present the people’s cultural as well as natural heritage.
A hands-off approach
The Government of India has attempted to address these concerns on some occasions. Perhaps the most important of them was to introduce the National Commission for the Heritage Sites Bill on February 26, 2009. This was referred to the department-related standing committee on transport, tourism and culture, chaired by Sitaram Yechury. The Bill was meant to constitute a National Commission for Heritage Sites to implement the stipulations of the 1972 convention. The Bill also sought to create a national roster of heritage sites to be maintained by the commission.
Although the Constitution directs the state to protect and preserve India’s heritage, Indian laws only identify ‘ancient monuments’, ‘protected monuments’ or ‘antiquity’. However, UNESCO’s definition of cultural heritage encompasses a wider range of items, including ‘landscape’. Thus, the 2009 Bill included definitions for ‘cultural heritage’ as well as ‘natural heritage’, through the following components:
- Natural sites or delineated areas relevant to science, conservation or natural beauty
- Geological or physiological formations that constitute the habitats of threatened species of animals and plants of outstanding value to science or conservation, and
- Natural features consisting of physical and biological formations.
The proposed commission’s functions included the following:
- Recommending policies to the government with respect to conservation, protection and management of heritage sites
- Laying down standards to develop scientific and technical institutions and courses
- Creating guidelines for conservation and management of heritage sites
- Conducting research to identify heritage sites
- Recommending measures to conserve and integrate intangible cultural systems with conservation of heritage sites
- Publishing heritages maps, and
- Preparing a list of heritage sites for nomination to the ‘world heritage sites’ list
However, a press release dated March 14, 2016, issued through the Press Information Bureau, said:
The Government does not intend to constitute a National Commission for Cultural and Heritage Sites. The Government had introduced a Bill named “The National Commission For Heritage Sites Bill, 2009” in the Rajya Sabha on 26.02.2009, which was referred to the [standing committee]. The same was pending since then for making necessary amendments in the Bill in pursuance to the recommendations, made in the 150th Report of [the committee], on the Bill. Accordingly, consultations were held with various stakeholders including the Archaeological Survey of India, National Monuments Authority (NMA) as well as Ministries of Urban Development, Environment, Forest & Climate Change, etc. Based on the consultations, the Government decided not to constitute a National Heritage Sites Commission as envisaged in the said Bill. The Bill was accordingly withdrawn by the Government from the Rajya Sabha on 31.07.2015.
Cut to February 2019, when Shashi Tharoor, the MP from Thiruvananthapuram, raised a few questions to Narendra Singh Tomar, the then Union minister of mines, whether the Geological Survey of India (GSI) had a comprehensive repository of geological structures in the country and a policy for geological conservation to protect unusual rock types, landforms that preserved records of natural events, significant fossil localities, stratigraphic sections where significant advances in geology have been made and deposits of particular minerals. Tomar replied that the GSI had identified many sites of geological importance, including 32 types of structures and monuments that it plans to preserve and maintain as geo-heritage sites and national geological monuments.
Clearly, the minister either actively evaded the core issue Tharoor was trying to raise or misunderstood the question’s essence. Such apathy and hands-off treatment has to end because we have very little time to waste before our geological marvels succumb under the onslaught of the JCBs. Specifically, we need the following, and fast:
- Framing of geo-conservation legislation for the country along the lines of the Biological Diversity Act 2002
- A ‘National Geo-Conservation Authority’ along the lines of the National Biodiversity Authority
- To create an inventory of all prospective geo-sites in the country (in addition to the 32 identified by the GSI), and
- To set up geo-parks through the national authority
C.P. Rajendran is a professor of geodynamics at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru.