India’s geologists champion law to protect fossil treasures

A group of children look at a dinosaur egg displayed in Balasinore

Dinosaur eggs have been pilfered from unprotected fossil sites in India.Credit: Amit Dave/Reuters

India’s scientists are lobbying lawmakers to protect the country’s myriad geological sites and fossils from looting and development. Among the country's geological gems are a large, scientifically significant dinosaur nest and a formal marker for a geologic age.

On 6 August, the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) in New Delhi and the Society of Earth Scientists in Lucknow, will present a draft bill to politicians. If enacted into law, the bill will create a national agency that has the power to designate geological and palaeontological sites, and to restrict access to them.

India currently has no national laws that conserve these resources, says Delhi-based geologist Satish Tripathi, a member of the Society of Earth Scientists and an advisor on the bill. A few important sites are protected under local laws, but many are not protected at all. As a result, there is little to prevent the theft of fossils and geological relics, or to stop developers and mining companies from destroying sites, a document accompanying the draft bill states.

Conservationists have struggled for years to guard important geological locations. But India's rapid development over the past decade has increased the urgency, says Tripathi. “The law has to be created, or such sites will vanish,” he says.

At least a couple of hundred sites could need safeguarding, estimates sedimentologist Rajasekhara Reddy Dhanireddy, an adviser to the non-profit Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in New Delhi.

Treasure trove

Among the artefacts in need of safeguarding is a 6-centimetre layer of soil in the state of Himachal Pradesh’s Spiti Valley. Scientists have linked the layer to an extinction event that took place around 252 million years ago. An exposed section of this layer, which separates shale from the Permian period from Triassic limestone above it, is in danger from a road-widening project, Tripathi says.

Another is a stalagmite in a cave in the northeastern state of Meghalaya. Last year, the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which sets new geological time units, designated this stalagmite as a marker for the Meghalayan age, which began 4,250 years ago.

Although several dozen sites have been declared National Geological Heritage Monument Sites by the Geological Survey of India (GSI), a central government agency, this is merely a designation and does not ensure the locations are protected, says Reddy. The responsibility for maintaining the sites falls to state governments, over which the GSI has no authority, he says.

A site in the western state of Gujarat that contains several dinosaur fossils1 and evidence of a large dinosaur nest2 shows what can happen without appropriate safeguards. In 1986, scientists discovered there fossils, which were later identified as the snake Sanajeh indicus, coiled around sauropod eggs. This was the first evidence of a snake species preying on dinosaur hatchlings3. But no measures were taken to secure these fossils until 1997, when part of the site was protected under the Bombay Police Act. Before then, several fossils and eggs disappeared from the site, Tripathi says.

The proposed law, which has been seen by Nature, would establish a National Geoheritage Authority along with state geoheritage agencies that would advise state governments. The national authority would also help establish geoparks to promote tourism, providing seed money to get them started. Damaging geoheritage or claiming intellectual-property rights for discoveries without the national authority’s permission could result in imprisonment or fines of up to 1 million rupees (US$14,400), according to the bill.

Third time lucky

The proposed bill, entitled The Geoheritage (Conservation and Promotion Bill), 2019, isn’t the first such law to be proposed. In 2009, the upper house of the Indian parliament considered a bill for a national authority for the protection of heritage sites. And in 2013, INTACH pushed for a geoheritage conservation law. But neither was pursued by lawmakers.

The situation is different this time because India’s leading geologists, the Society of Earth Scientists and INSA have joined forces to throw their weight behind the bill, says Dhiraj Mohan Banerjee, a Delhi-based geologist and member of INSA.

The scientists campaigning for the bill also think that highlighting the value of these sites to tourism will appeal to lawmakers. Political leaders might not appreciate the geological significance of the sites, Banerjee says, “but, if we tell them that these sites can be tourist attractions and can generate employment for people in the area, we may be successful”.

Tripathi and his team will seek an appointment with the prime minister’s office in the coming months. They hope a member of parliament will back their cause, and pursue the bill further.

Nature 572, 163-164 (2019)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-02361-6


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