The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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It is commonly believed that bureaucrats are only interested in their careers, are devoid of all sense of curiosity or a disinterested engagement with ideas and values. That may be so but it often leads to disastrous consequences.

Take the Survey of India. All maps of India, past and present have to be cleared by it before they can be published. During a meeting in late September of the river-linking project, Suresh Prabhu, the chairman of the task force, was told by the surveyor general of India that the typographical maps required to work out the modalities of the project were a secret and hence clearance would be required from the ministry of defence. At a joint meeting of the defence ministry and the department of science and technology, the Indian Space Research Organization and the surveyor general, it was “discovered” that the information was readily available for sale across the world. In fact, it is available on the websites of American mapping agencies and can be downloaded.

In the early Seventies, Orient Longman commissioned a historical atlas of India. The cartographic work was being done by Aligarh university under the supervision of the professor, Irfan Habib, an eminent historical geographer. After some maps were ready, they were submitted to the surveyor general. He maintained that all maps, historical or otherwise, had to show the current boundaries of India. Habib found these rules “absurd”, but the surveyor general stuck to the rules and the project was abandoned.

During the border dispute with China in 1962, the defence ministry discovered that it had no detailed topographical maps of the northeast and approached the ambassador, J.K. Galbraith, to acquire them from the state department. Galbraith got them directly from Schribner’s, a leading retail book chain, who sent them for less than a dollar a copy.

How did this cartographic ham-handedness come about and what has it meant for the development of maps and atlases in India'

Trouble first arose when the late S. Gopal led the first Indian team to negotiate the border dispute with the Chinese in the late Sixties. The Chinese confronted the Indian team with the first edition of Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India which carried a map of British India. This apparently showed parts of the Northeast as disputed territory, which the Chinese said was proof enough that the territory was subject to negotiation. Immediately thereafter, orders were passed that all maps would have to be scrutinized by the surveyor general of India before publication.

As a result of these bureaucratic hurdles maps and atlases, even for schools and basic reference work, are way behind international standards. While cartographic companies have gone over to satellite mapping, you have only to check out The Times Atlas of the World or The Twenty-first Century World Atlas to know just how far behind we are. Sadly, it is not as if our cartographers don’t know how to go about accessing satellite images or to reproduce them, it is just that bureaucratic hurdles prevent them from going ahead in improving their standards.

Now that the proposed river-linking project requires detailed “typo” maps, the surveyor general of India must realize that such maps are readily accessible and that it is stupid to come in the way.

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