Heritage Matters: India – What Lies Beneath

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    Where in India would you go if you wanted to touch one of the earth’s oldest building blocks? Which Indian state has lent its name to the geological time-scale in which we currently live? And why is the supercontinent ‘Gondwanaland’ named after a region in Central India?

    OK, so we’ve got your attention; but that was easy. The tough part is getting those who have the power to save our geological heritage, to sit up and take notice of India’s fabulous geological wealth. Why do we care so little for our world-class geo-heritage?

    We invited a panel of experts to provide an insight into India’s geological heritage and address the issues concerning its awareness and protection, on our weekly online talk show, Heritage Matters. This edition of the show was titled India – What Lies Beneath, and our panelists were: Aaliya Babi, Conservationist; Dr Pushpendra Singh Ranawat, Retired Prof of Geology, MLS University, Udaipur; Dr D Rajasekhar Reddy, Advisor, Geoheritage Cell, INTACH; and Bidisha Bayan, Research Scholar.

    Each of our panelists has been involved in campaigns and programmes to get India’s geo-heritage recognised and conserved. On our show, they identified the challenges involved and offered suggestions on what needs to be done to preserve and promote India’s rich and varied geological treasures.

    What is India’s geological wealth and what is its status today?

    To understand the geological wealth that India has, it is important to know where it all began. Dr Pushpendra Singh Ranawat and Bidisha Bayan talked about just how old the Indian subcontinent is and briefly explained its geological history. They pointed out that the earth was born around 4.5 billion years ago. Although there were no continents then, as we know them today, various continental units fused together around 300 million years ago, to form a supercontinent called Pangaea.

    Around 200 million years ago, this supercontinent split into two – Laurasia and Gondwana. The latter was named after the ‘Gondwana’ region in Central India and comprised the present-day continents of Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica, the Indian subcontinent, and Madagascar. It was named ‘Gondwanaland’ as geological formations in this region of Central India match those of similar ages in the southern hemisphere.

    Next, Gondwana began to split up 160-180 million years ago, a process that took a million years. After breaking away from the rest of Gondwana, India and Madagascar began to move northwards. Both these landmasses separated from each other 80-90 million years ago, after which the Indian plate continued to move northward. About 50 million years ago, it collided with the Eurasian plate, giving rise to new formations like the Himalayas, while the old structures such as rocks remained.

    Many of the natural wonders in India today are an outcome of millions of years of geographical transformation. One of these wonders, highlighted by Bayan, is the Dharwar Craton. A craton is a part of the earth’s crust that has remained largely unchanged for billions of years. The Nandi Hills in Karnataka are a part of the Dharwar Craton, which is a part of the earliest building block of the Indian landmass and is also one of the oldest cratons in the world. It has been around for 3.5 billion years.

    Apart from this absolutely amazing geological wonder, India is home to a wide range of other geological marvels, which include caves, canyons, fossil sites, rocks and a whole lot more. Not many know that the geological age in which we live – and the youngest, newest unit on the geological time scale – is named the ‘Meghalayan Age’, which comprises the last 4,200 years of the Earth’s existence.

    This geological age is named after the North-East Indian state of Meghalaya, where scientists discovered a cave formation that contained evidence of a climatic event that marked the beginning of this age. This cave system in the region is a network of 1,700 limestone and sandstone caves that stretches across 491 km!

    States like Rajasthan and Gujarat too are geologically very rich, which is one of the reasons many kingdoms in history have flourished there. The site of Zawar, near Udaipur in Rajasthan, which has many zinc mines, is recognised by the British Museum as the world’s first zinc smelting site. Surprisingly, the site is still not protected in India.

    And India’s geo-heritage is so much more than rocks and minerals. The subcontinent was home to dinosaurs and you can visit the Dinosaur Park in Balasinor in Gujarat, to see the world’s third-largest dinosaur hatcheries and excavation sites. The conservationist behind this was one of our panelists, Aaliya Babi.

    For a long time, India’s geo-heritage has been a neglected domain. The Geological Survey of India, which was established in 1851, has identified only 32 geological sites as National Geological Monuments. Most of these are located in geologically rich states such as Rajasthan, Odisha, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu. Two sites in Rajasthan are recognised as geo-heritage sites but are yet to be declared as such officially. In fact, India is yet to get its first geo-park.

    Dr D Rajasekhar Reddy, Advisor, Geoheritage Cell, INTACH, explained what constitutes a geo-park. “A geo-park is not exclusively geology, it’s geology-centric. It can have one or two important geological sites, coupled with cultural and archaeological sites.” Experts like Dr Reddy and Dr Ranawat have been running campaigns for the development of geo-parks in India.

    Unfortunately, beyond declaring a site as a geological monument, nothing has been done to protect these natural marvels in India. Our experts agreed that one of the main reasons is lack of awareness. Citizens don’t even know that such a wealth of geology exists in India. “Geology is not taught at the school level, so people aren’t aware. Even though people use geology every day, there is no awareness. It needs to be popularized,” said Dr Ranawat.

    Talking about the Balasinor Park, Aaliya Babi pointed out that, initially, the locals in the area were clueless about dinosaurs. “The villagers were ignorant, they didn’t know what a dinosaur was. So first we had to educate them about the importance of this prehistoric animal, which for them was just rock because they couldn’t see an animal in it. So we had to tell them what it was.”

    Another major issue is lack of laws and rules. Is it any surprise that India lacks legislation for the protection of geological sites? There are no laws governing our geo-heritage or geo-diversity. “We have a biodiversity law in our country which says we cannot take plants, or unique species of plants, out of the country, but we don’t have a geo-diversity law. So, if someone wants to take a fossil out of our country, no one can stop them...There are times when dinosaur eggs were sold to tourists for just Rs 500... that’s really a matter of shame,” said Bayan, highlighting the sorry state of our geo-heritage.

    The sites, without any protection, are subject to theft and vandalism. People steal rocks and fossils from these sites and there are no checks in place. Natural erosion or damage is another problem. Industrialisation, illegal or excessive mining, construction and demolition of rocks are also harming our natural heritage and these valuable sites. All these sites, which are natural formations, are exposed to the elements, without any physical protection. If this continues, we will lose these important sites.

    How can we save our geo-heritage? Based on the suggestions and observations from our experts, here are a few ways in which we can conserve and protect our geological heritage.

    1. Identify, Protect, Promote

    This is Dr Ranawat’s mantra for the conservation of geo-sites. He said we first need to identify the important sites and then work towards their protection. After that is done, local communities and others should be made aware of the significance of these sites, he pointed out.

    2. Building Awareness

    Awareness is key to conservation. Local communities need to be sensitised to the importance of the sites in their respective regions. Once they understand the value, they can be involved in campaigns and activities to promote these sites.

    Dr Reddy highlighted how his team in Visakhapatnam got local school students, photographers, artists and journalists involved in activities such as photography competitions for the sites of Erra Matti Dibbalu and Natural Arch in Visakhapatnam.

    3. Legal Armour All our experts agreed that we need strict laws to protect the geological sites in India. In their absence, these sites will continue to be vandalised. Bayan, who worked on the draft of the ‘Geoheritage Conservation Legislation’ which the Ministry of Mines is currently reviewing, also said that while volunteers like herself may take the initiative, it is only the government authorities and legal bodies that can enforce the laws.

    4. Sustainable Tourism Taking inspiration from the Balasinor Dinosaur project, it is imperative that geo-heritage sites develop into self-sustaining tourism sites. Outside India, geological sites such as the Grand Canyon in the US are great tourist attractions.

    The message came across loud and clear – geo-heritage enthusiasts, conservationists and other experts are making a valiant effort to showcase India’s wonderful natural heritage but these will remain isolated attempts unless the government steps in and takes charge.

    Cover Image: Natural Arch, Tirumala Hills, Andhra Pradesh - A national geological monument

    You can watch the complete conversation on IndiaWhat Lies Beneath here:

    Through our weekly online talk show, Heritage Matters, we offer a platform to anyone who wants to highlight issues surrounding our heritage as well as showcase work that addresses the many problems faced on the ground, across the length and breadth of India. If you have a story to share, an issue to highlight, or work to showcase, write to us at:

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