A draft Bill, aimed at protecting India’s geological heritage that includes fossils, sedimentary rocks, natural structures, has raised alarm in India’s geo-sciences and palaeontology community.
The draft Geo-heritage Sites and Geo-relics (Preservation and Maintenance) Bill, 2022, while deemed necessary by several researchers, vests powers entirely in the Geological Survey of India (GSI), a 170-year-old organisation that comes under the Ministry of Mines.
Provisions of the Bill give it the power to declare sites as having ‘geo-heritage’ value, take possession of relics (fossils, rocks) that rest in private hands, prohibit construction 100 metres around such a site, penalise — with fines up to ₹5 lakh and possibly imprisonment — vandalism, defacement, and violations of directives of a site by the Director General of the GSI.
“We welcome a Geo-heritage Bill, however, rather than have all authority in the Director General, GSI, there needs to be a broader committee of experts from a wider range of institutions. This would mean that the interests and difficulties faced by researchers, who actually work in the field, are kept in mind,” G.V.R. Prasad, palaeontologist and head of Delhi University’s geology department, told The Hindu.
In 2019, the Indian National Science Academy and a group called the Society of Earth Sciences had submitted a proposal to the government to establish a broad-based National Geoheritage Authority that would advise State governments on conservation, setting up geo-heritage parks, deciding on the geological importance of sites and administer the possession of fossils or other relics in these regions.
‘Matter of discussion‘
A highly placed official in government told The Hindu, on condition of anonymity, that the current version of the Bill was unlikely to be placed before the Union Cabinet, a pre-requisite for it to be brought to Parliament. “It is a matter of intense discussion and a meeting involving secretaries from several ministries is due. It’s unlikely that the GSI alone will decide on geo-heritage sites. They certainly are a key body with a long history of preserving sites but don’t have all the necessary expertise for modern conservation.”
The GSI has declared 32 geo-heritage sites, including the Siwalik Fossil Park, Himachal Pradesh; Stromatolite Fossil Park, Jharmarkotra Rock Phosphate deposit, Udaipur district, Akal Fossil Wood Park, Jaisalmer, but several are in stages of disrepair. “The state of many of these places shows the need for a geo-heritage Bill and why a wide body of experts is needed,” said Mr. Prasad.
Other than protecting places of geological interest, the need for a law that specifically protects sites of geo-heritage value follows from India being a signatory to the UNESCO Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, since 1972.