India’s draft geoheritage law sends tremors through the research community

Last month’s announcement of the discovery of 92 titanosaur nests—along with 256 eggs the size of volleyballs—in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh was another reminder of the country’s vast geological and paleontological riches. But a draft bill slated to be sent to the Indian Parliament soon has researchers worried about future access to such treasures, as well as their conservation and use for public education.

The bill, which aims to protect India’s geological sites and fossils, gives the country’s central government the power to declare sites of national importance and preserve and maintain them. It introduces hefty penalties for destroying or defacing such places. “While our rich cultural heritage has largely been taken care of, the country’s geological heritage is still awaiting its turn,” the bill explains.

Most scientists agree stronger legal protection for India’s geoheritage is long overdue. The country’s paleontological community, for one, has long struggled to protect fossils from looting. But many argue the bill concentrates too much power in the hands of the Geological Survey of India (GSI), the agency charged with carrying out the law. It gives GSI the authority to acquire any material of geological significance, including sediments, rocks, minerals, meteorites, and fossils, as well as sites of geological importance, and to control who has access to them.

Researchers fear GSI’s monopoly will increase red tape and infringe on the autonomy of researchers at universities and research institutes as well as private collectors.

“The GSI has been given sweeping powers,” says Guntupalli V R Prasad, a paleontologist at the University of Delhi who led the team that discovered the titanosaur nests. The bill “disregards the central role” that other players have had in identifying and studying geoheritage treasures and will “effectively sound the death knell” for research activities by non-GSI researchers, adds veteran paleontologist Ashok Sahni, an emeritus professor at Panjab University. “I am deeply alarmed.”

Prasad would rather entrust oversight to an independent board with many stakeholders. That was the plan detailed in draft legislation produced by India’s Society of Earth Scientists (SoES) in 2019. It would have created a National Geoheritage Authority in which GSI, several ministries, independent experts, and state geoheritage boards all had a seat at the table. The bill also had provisions for providing access to sites for scientific purposes, to be granted by the new authority.

The bill now under discussion is based on SoES’s draft but with major changes, says Satish Tripathi, the society’s general secretary and a former deputy director-general of GSI. “We are not at all happy with this released draft,” Tripathi says. “You will have to take all stakeholders alongside, if you want to succeed.”

Issues of control aside, there are serious questions about GSI’s stewardship of the heritage entrusted to it. Some sites controlled by GSI have been poorly protected, there have been reports of thefts—and subsequent sales—of fossils. GSI has also lost material in its possession. “GSI has got absolutely fantastic collections,” Sahni says, but “many of the collections just disappear.”

GSI and the Ministry of Mines did not answer Science’s questions or requests for clarification.

The sweeping language in the bill has also scared private conservationists, some of whom have spent many years collecting and preserving fossils or even creating private museums. Theoretically, GSI could now lay claim to their life’s work. “People like me can suddenly be made to feel like criminals for all the work we did, and our collections could be confiscated,” says Vishal Varma, a physics teacher and paleontology enthusiast from the state of Madhya Pradesh. Varma helped researchers identify dinosaur nesting sites and eggs in Dhar and went to great lengths to help safeguard fossil finds. Fossil museums run by state forest departments could theoretically see GSI take control as well.

Not everybody takes such a dim view of the agency. “To be fair, GSI allowed me and my colleagues access to specimens which had been presumed lost,” says Jeffrey Wilson Mantilla, a professor and curator at the University of Michigan’s Museum of Paleontology. Together with Dhananjay Mohabey, then at GSI, Wilson Mantilla rediscovered fossils of Titanosaurus indicus that had been found in India in 1828 but later went missing. The researchers found the fossils at GSI headquarters in Kolkata, amid other vast vertebrate collections and without an accession number. That rediscovery, published in Current Science in 2013, and others like it have raised hopes that more “missing” fossils may be relocated.

Wilson Mantilla says he supports efforts to protect geological heritage sites, but “the process for determining research access to sites should be transparent and timely and there should be a streamlined process whereby qualified investigators are able to propose research projects,” he says.

Moreover, “Considerable expertise in Indian paleontology” lies in other Indian institutions, Wilson Mantilla says, including universities, the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences, and the Indian Statistical Institute. Institutions outside India also have considerable knowledge about the nation’s geology. “The Indian authorities should draw on this expertise,” he says, “in evaluating proposals for site designation and research access.”

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