Interview with Prof. V.S. Ramamurthy
The cross-country survey and mapping carried out 200 years ago in India was a landmark event that provided the basis for all survey and mapping exercises in the country since then. The bicentennial celebration of the mega-scientific experiment, The Great Arc, is being utilised by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) of the Government of India to highlight the globally competitive position acquired by the Survey of India. Professor V.S. Ramamurthy, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, shared with B.S. Padmanabhan his views on the significance of the event. Excerpts from the interview:
Why is the survey that Col. William Lambton and his colleagues carried out in 1802 called The Great Arc?
The surface of the earth is not flat. We sit on a large sphere. If you draw a line between two points on the earth it is not going to be a straight line but will be a distance measured over an arc. The distance will depend on the curvature or the exact surface profile of the earth.
Two hundred years ago this was not a specifically known number. So there was an international effort to map the surface of the earth at three locations -- close to the Equator, close to the poles and somewhere in between. The exercise close to the Equator took place in Ecuador. There was a similar exercise in Iceland. For the third, the choice fell on India.
The programme started from Chennai, then called Madras. One was supposed to cover a short distance of one degree, which is equivalent to 300 km. That was the beginning of the exercise. So this was part of a scientific study of global interest to be carried out globally. Subsequently, Col. Lambton, who was entrusted with this responsibility, decided that this experiment should be carried out much beyond this one degree. He took the entire country into the picture and went right up to Tibet. It took almost 50 years. It became a mega-scientific experiment more than 200 years ago and formed the basis of all mapping afterwards. It was a landmark because all mapping exercises carried out since then was based on the data collected by Lambton and his colleagues.
What is the significance of the survey from scientific, political and socio-economic angles?
The scientific significance is that it paved the way for mapping the surface of the earth and therefore became the basis of all surveying. New technologies have come superseding the early theodolite, which was being physically carried from place to place. Today we have remote-sensing technology, air-borne technology and so on, but the basic principles have not changed. So scientifically it was a milestone.
Politically, it was important because it gave the East India Company and the British Empire information on the geological details of this country, whether it was for security or for war purposes or for tax collection. So far as socio-economic significance is concerned, many of the development projects depended on the availability of detailed maps. The situation has not changed today. If we want to develop a watershed or take up any other development work we need detailed maps. I think history is repeating itself. Maps have become an integral part of the development process and security-related actions. Managing and monitoring natural resources will also depend upon maps of one kind or another. I believe that surveying and mapping will continue to remain at the centre of human interest.
How is the survey conducted 200 years ago relevant now, for there have been so many advances in mapping tools and techniques?
The relevance comes from the fact that the scientific basis of this entire experiment has not changed while technology has changed. You see this in several areas. Our entire communication system today is electro-magnetic and digital, but the technology has changed. The digital revolution happened 20 years ago and is getting upgraded. The basic principles of mapping and surveying have been set at that time and new technologies are coming into the picture. It is important because there is greater realisation that the domain in which maps will be useful has considerably broadened. Therefore we have to tell our people that we have a tradition in mapping so that everybody becomes familiar with the kind of knowledge maps provide them. The year-long celebration is basically meant to trigger public interest in our heritage and bring out the importance of mapping and surveying today.
What is the focus of the programmes planned for the bicentennial celebration in India and the U.K.?
The main focus is on arousing public interest in this area so that the members of the public can understand how this is of value and relevance to their day-to-day activities and overall economic development. We are addressing non-professionals too. In all our programmes we find that the best investment is when we address our students. We have a special focus on the younger generation.
When Lambton started the exercise 200 years ago, he went from Chennai across the country through the Himalayas into Tibet. Imagine what kind of cultural diversity he must have gone through. No two portions covered were identical in terms of geography, language or culture. He cut through all these. This may not appear to be a great thing now when the communication media have grown and it is not difficult for one to travel from Chennai to Delhi or beyond. But 200 years ago when similar means of communication or transportation did not exist, this was an exercise by itself. The cultural events planned in the year-long celebration seek to bring out the diversity and the unity in diversity. The cultural events are not meant to be purely entertainment but entertainment with a message.
Will this celebration help boost the status and standing of the Survey of India at the international level?
We have a long heritage in surveying and mapping. There are very few countries in the world that have a history of close to 250 years of continuous operations in this area. The Survey of India not only caters to the Indian sub-continent but also several neighbouring countries. There are various reasons for this, one of which is that the British Empire was a common denominator. The Survey of India has kept pace with technological changes. The message we want to convey to the rest of the world is that we not only have a tradition in surveying and mapping but we are up-to-date in technology. As technology changes we take recourse to that technology and the services we offer are competitive. Our services are available to India, which is a mandate, but we will also offer them to the rest of the world. The activities of the Survey of India are based on human resources. You have seen our strengths in software. Survey and mapping is yet another area where our qualified and skilled human resource is going to be an asset for the rest of the world. The bicentennial celebration of The Great Arc is certainly an opportunity to remind everyone of our historical traditions; it is also an opportunity to highlight our strengths and global competitiveness. A quantum boost has taken place in surveying and mapping because of remote sensing technology, computer technology and communication technology. India has shown its supremacy in all these areas. Each sector is ideally suited for us to be a global player.
Geography as a subject does not attract students to the extent it used to. Will events like this help make geographical studies attractive to students?
It is true that history and geography used to be prime subjects of study in the past. It should be recognised that the students' choice depends on job opportunities. They do not opt for a subject for sentimental reasons. Geography is getting a new market share today in terms of skills. The reason for this is that geographical data, of which survey and mapping is one component, has become an invaluable resource to plan many business propositions. For example, a department store which caters to the home delivery market uses GIS (geographical information system) and identifies how best to optimise its resources so that it can cater to more customers using alternative routes and other parameters. You can do supply chain management much more effectively if you use GIS technology. All this requires a mindset and basic training, which geography provides. I believe that even though in the last few decades geography has declined as a choice for students, it is going to come back because people with this kind of expertise are going to be in demand.
As part of the bicentennial programme, a pilot project on neighbourhood mapping is being launched in 40 schools in Almora, Dehra Dun, Allahabad and Lucknow. What is the underlying concept, and its salient features?
The basic concept is this. Today's GIS technology does not require computing power of a very high magnitude. Secondly, GPS (global positioning system) technology is no longer expensive. You have hand-held GPS systems, which are inexpensive. Cars in the Western world now have built-in GPS, which tells you where you are going and which road to take. GIS and GPS go hand-in-hand. They have become affordable and accessible even in the remotest schools and colleges. We now have schools in almost every village. It is a very big resource.
What we are trying to do is to convey to the students and the teaching community that they can get the data on the resources of their neighbourhood continuously, merge it with other data - socio-economic, commercial or even market data - and bring out products that are of immediate use for their own region. If this exercise has to be done by a professional organisation like the Survey of India it will be expensive. The country is vast and you cannot have that amount of human resource deployed for this purpose. So we want to make use of the scientific expertise available in the schools, give access to the students to this mechanism so that their interest is aroused and they use the entire data collected as a resource from the Survey of India. This project envisages involving students in creating a general profile of the area in which they live. This will be an exciting extra-curricular activity. The mapping exercise will require hands-on training, field visits and the creation of a database. This practical experience coupled with inputs of theoretical geographical concepts can be the best method of dissemination of knowledge.