Read rocks to increase India's geological literacy

Read rocks to increase India's geological literacy


On the section between Visakhapatnam and Bheemili

Between Visakhapatnam and Bheemili | Photo courtesy: The Hindu

With landscapes ranging from the world's tallest peaks to low-lying coastal plains, India exhibits a diverse morphology that has evolved over billions of years. In many places, we find different types of rocks and minerals and distinctive fossil assemblages. These geological features and landscapes tell us amazing 'origin' stories derived not from mythology but from scientific explanations. India's tumultuous geological past is recorded in its rocks and terrain and should be considered as our non-cultural heritage. India offers many such examples. Geoheritage sites are educational places where people acquire much-needed geological literacy, especially when India's collective respect for this heritage is very low.

Slow progress in India

The aim of geological conservation is to ensure the survival of the best representative examples of India's geological features and phenomena so that present and future generations can better appreciate the world's best natural laboratories. Despite international progress in this field, geoconservation has not made much progress in India. Many fossil-rich sites have been destroyed in the name of development and real estate development, destructive stone mining activities also add to this misery. The magnitude of these activities is evident from the fact that the area under stone-quarrying operations is more than 10% of the total area of ​​India.

Read this also | Why is the Indian subcontinent a unique geological museum?

These geological features tell us how the land we are so familiar with came into being, and are part of the evolutionary history that has made the Indian landmass what it is today. The irony is that on the one hand, we reach Mars in search of evidence of early life, but on the other, we destroy evidence that is so precious and right in our backyard. How many of us know about the lesser-known Dhalla meteorite impact crater in Shivpuri, Madhya Pradesh? This crater, dated to be 1.5 billion to 2.5 billion years old, is evidence of a celestial collision when life may have begun. The more famous Lonar crater in Buldhana district of Maharashtra was earlier thought to be about 50,000 years old, and a recent study suggests that it originated about 5,76,000 years ago.

The importance of our planet's shared geological heritage was first recognised in 1991 at the UNESCO-sponsored event 'First International Symposium on the Conservation of Our Geological Heritage'. Delegates gathered in Digne, France, endorsed the concept of a shared heritage: “Humans and the Earth share a common heritage of which we and our Governments are merely custodians”. This declaration called for the establishment of geoparks, which commemorate the unique geological features and landscapes in their designated areas; and places that educate the public about geological significance.

Geoheritage sites have been developed as national parks in several countries such as Canada, China, Spain, the United States and the United Kingdom. UNESCO has also formulated guidelines for the development of geoparks. Many countries also have laws requiring the creation, protection and naming of geoparks. Europe celebrates its geological heritage in 73 areas. Japan offers another good lesson in such conservation. Today, there are 169 global geoparks in 44 countries. Thailand and Vietnam have also enacted laws to preserve their geological and natural heritage. Despite being a signatory, India has no such law or policy for geoheritage conservation.

This situation requires sustainable conservation approaches, such as the ones we are able to devise to protect biodiversity. The Biological Diversity Act was enacted in 2002 and now there are 18 notified biosphere reserves in India. Although the Geological Survey of India (GSI) has notified 34 geological monuments, it lacks regulatory powers to enforce conservation measures. The recent development in the case of a cliff at Varkala in Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala is a typical example. This cliff overlooking the Arabian Sea is made up of rocks deposited millions of years ago and has been declared a geological heritage site by the GSI. To save some unauthorised structures, the district administration recently demolished a portion of this cliff citing landslide hazards

Half-measures

The Indian government has attempted to address these concerns on a few occasions. In 2009, a half-hearted attempt was made to set up a National Commission for Heritage Sites through a bill introduced in the Rajya Sabha. Though it was eventually referred to the Standing Committee, the government backtracked for some undisclosed reasons and the bill was withdrawn. The bill was aimed at setting up a national commission to implement the terms of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention 1972 and create a national list of heritage sites. More recently, in 2022, the Ministry of Mines has prepared a draft bill for conservation and maintenance, but there has been no further progress on it. As stated in the annexure to the draft Geoheritage Sites and Georemains (Protection and Maintenance) Bill, 2022, “Unlike the well-prescribed protection and conservation measures addressed with relevant legislation on archaeological and historical monuments and cultural heritage sites, India has no specific and specialized policy or legislation to conserve and preserve geoheritage sites and georemains for future generations.”

In particular, India needs to do the following as early as possible: first, list all potential geosites in the country (in addition to the 34 sites identified by GSI); second, enact a geosites legislation for the country similar to the Biodiversity Act 2002; and third, create a ‘National Geosites Conservation Authority’ with independent overseers, similar to the National Biodiversity Authority, and ensure that its establishment does not lead to red tape and does not encroach on the autonomy of researchers and private collectors with academic interests.

CP Rajendran is Assistant Professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru, and Director of the Consortium for Sustainable Development in Connecticut, USA.


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