Fossil and time: On the draft Geo-heritage Sites and Geo-relics bill

Absolute vesting of powers in the GSI alone may impede palaeontological research

Updated - February 15, 2023 11:49 am IST

Published - February 15, 2023 12:10 am IST

Sporadically, but surely, palaeontologists report intriguing discoveries from India. In January, a team discovered 92 dinosaur nesting sites with 256 fossilised eggs of the titanosaurus — among the largest of its kind, from 100-66 million years ago, when ‘India’ was a continent and yet to merge into the Eurasian land mass. Similarly, the deserts of Kutch, Gujarat and the Deccan traps in Maharashtra bear witness to the forces that shaped the diverse geography, and tangentially history, of the most populous country. Unlike the quest to preserve cultural history and man-made artefacts from archaeology, there has been limited effort to preserve and communicate at large this natural ‘geo-history’ such as rock formations, sediment and fossils. For decades now, researchers have been warning that this neglect is leading to an erasure of this history from the public mind and a destruction as well as appropriation of this natural wealth. To that end, the draft Geo-heritage Sites and Geo-relics (Preservation and Maintenance) Bill, 2022, piloted by the Ministry of Mines, is seen as a step to give the process of such conservation firmer footing.

The Bill’s provisions give the Director General of the Geological Survey of India (GSI), a subordinate body of the Ministry of Mines, 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 of up to ₹5 lakh and possibly imprisonment — vandalism, defacement, and violations of directives by the Director General of the GSI. This has rankled experts who work outside the GSI-fold in central and State universities, institutes of national importance and private organisations who fear that such absolute vesting of powers in the GSI alone may impede palaeontological research. They demand a more inclusive body, on the lines of a National Geoheritage Authority, that can, more democratically, decide on declaring sites as being of ‘geohistorical’ importance and how best to preserve artefacts and finds. The government, it is learnt, is still far from introducing the Bill in Parliament and deliberating on several aspects. While there are merits and demerits to either approach on governance, it is important to keep in mind that legislation, while acting as a ring fence, ought not to become a tool for suppressing independent investigation. Given the premium for land and India’s economic needs, there will be conflict over questions of preservation and livelihood, but any legislation must endeavour to balance these forces and enable consensus.

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