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Episode 14: How India's fossil treasures are turning to dust

Geologists at the rich Fulra limestone deposits in Kutch, Gujarat. Credit: Kantimati Kulkarni

Subhra Priyadarshini digs deep into what is destroying India's geoheritage and what can be done to protect it.

In this episode, we find ourselves – quite happily – between a rock and a hard place. We unearth what's wiping off India's fossil riches. We turn to geologists and palaeontologists to talk about a proposed Geoheritage and Geopark Bill and what it can do to protect the country's scientifically important sites. Host: Subhra Priyadarshini. Produced by Jinoy Jose P., Amrita Gupta Nambiar and Prince George.



Subhra Priyadarshini digs deep into what is destroying India's geoheritage and what can be done to protect it.

(Lightly edited for readability)

Speakers: Rajani Panchang, Amruta Paranjape, Suraj Bhosale, Shweta Patil, Vijay Prakash Mishra, Subhra Priyadarshini

00:01 Sponsor announcement: This episode is produced with support from the Beatty Wellcome Trust India Alliance.

00:26 Subhra Priyadarshini: Welcome to the Nature India podcast. I'm your host Subhra Priyadarshini. Each episode we take you on a journey into the world of Indian scientists and science, both within India and beyond its borders. In this season, we ventured into virology (much topical), explored neuroscience and emotions, took a deep dive into oceanography, and a long look at climate science as it was the season of the big Conference of Parties (CoP26).

Today, we find ourselves quite happily, between a rock and a hard place. We are focused on digging into what we can learn from India's geoheritage and its fossilised treasures. Now why is all this so important? And in danger of turning to dust? And what can we do to protect it? I turned to geologists and palaeontologists to find out. Let's start our journey with geologist and researcher Rajani Panchang, who takes us to the Western Ghats, which we often talk about for its importance to biodiversity. What we tend to overlook is that….

01: 43 Rajani Panchang: The Western Ghats in themselves are a geological marvel. Starting right from Gujarat, they go all the way down south till a part of Karnataka, till Belgaum. You have the Deccan basalt – basalts are formed under the ocean. But in some places of the world, you have these basalts coming out on land. And I feel sad when I look at the entire list. All these places are not cited. If you look at places around Pune, you have lava tunnels, you also have volcanic craters, which are preserved in Maharashtra; volcanic caves, which are preserved and which are still there intact. They are full of different minerals and crystals, which are of a lot of economic value. Apart from that you have these lava tunnels, like for example, they tell you what the history, how this landmass formed, how 65 million years ago, just before the extinction of the dinosaurs, how there was extreme volcanism, how did this entire landmass form and how lava actually moved from one place to the other.

02:55 Amruta Paranjape: So, the Indian plate was a part of a bigger continent, which was called as Eastern Gondwanaland. And when the Gondwanaland split up somewhere between 180 million years to 130 million years ago, India then broke up from Australia and Antarctica, and it started its journey from the southern hemisphere till its position right now. So this entire journey is recorded in the rocks in the Ariyalur area. So that is also something of importance.

03:28 Subhra Priyadarshini: Amruta Paranjape is also a geologist. Her research interests include sedimentology.

03:39 Amruta Paranjape: I took up geology because I love going on field works. I love to be outside in the field, visit new areas, see new rocks, and these tell a lot of stories. I believe that every rock speaks to you. Geology helps redefine the earth's history.

03:57 Subhra Priyadarshini: Amruta rightly says that rocks shed light on our history. And if you ask Rajani Panchang she will say geology and the fossils can unearth volumes on climate too. They are a natural museum, if you will.

(Field clip): These geologists are on a field excursion in the Western Ghats mountain ranges in India to figure out contacts between different lava flow in the Deccan Traps, faults indicating neotectonic activity and change in soils due to change in rocks and vegetation or vice versa. They are making their way through thick forests, armed with equipment, field guides and record keeping stuff.

04: 47 Rajani Panchang: I've been using microfossils to understand climate change, especially understand how the ocean has been behaving in the light of climate change. What is happening, how are the sea levels fluctuating? How is it impacting civilisation? Because when climatologists talk about climate, they think, oh, climate is changing every year. It's changing every season. But when geologists talk about climate, I think they talk in terms of 1000s of years and millions of years. And I think geoheritage sites are also largely carved from climate, and also preserved or destroyed by climate.

05:25 Subhra Priyadarshini: The worry though, is that the threat of destruction is looming from multiple directions.

05:31 Suraj Bhosale: All the natural heritage is being destroyed day by day, under your urbanisation and mining and all these practices.

05:44 Subhra Priyadarshini: We turn now to Suraj Bhosale, a PhD scholar working on the northern continental shelf of Jurassic Period, essentially, the geology of the Himalayan region during the Jurassic period. He has pitiful stories of how the country's geologically important formations and vast fossil treasures are being despoiled by unregulated mining, dams, development and tourism.

06:14 Suraj Bhosale: What I have seen that there are some tourists, I mean, tourists planners – they are actually taking these people to the sites where we have few ammonites left in the actual rock. And they are extensively collecting the ammonites from last several years. What I have faced is that I did not get complete specimens or, at least good amount of ammonites, for construction of biostratigraphy.

06:46 Subhra Priyadarshini: And just like that, things that literally take millions of years to form can disappear dangerously fast, souvenir by souvenir, and with them, everything we can learn about evolution or environment or climate, right down to the initiation of your modern Asian monsoon.

07:07 Suraj Bhosale: Because of the people or the industries, they are getting continuously deteriorated and the problems for the generation will be that they will not be able to understand this situation in the field. They can only read about these things in the textbook, but they can never imagine. And they can never see those changes happening in front of their eyes because they will not be able to see the outcrops.

07:34 Subhra Priyadarshini: And it's not just tourism and unscrupulous fossil hunters, of course. Here’s Shweta Patil, assistant professor at St. Xavier's College, Mumbai, who's talking about geoheritage sites in Kutch, Gujarat.

07: 48 Shweta Patil: What happened is that entire section is kind of buried under the waste products of the cement company. So, mining and the cement industries are the two major threats which I have seen in that area. Second, or the next one in the line, is the way the water resource management is done over there with the water irrigation department doing small dams on the streams which were there. That is where the outcrops or exposures, which were next to the stream, are now underwater. Each year when I visit the area, I see that there is something new happening. Whatever I saw last time, those outcrops, those rocks are gone, either under the water or they are gone because of mining.

08:42 Amruta Paranjape: Mining has been a part of their area or disturbing or destroying outcrops in the area. In my area. It's mostly been agriculture. Now we can't blame people for doing agriculture. But in my area, most of the outcrops have been dug up and they have been converted into fields or either they have been dug up and the area has been converted into water tanks for agriculture. So that's something which I have seen a lot.

09:13 Subhra Priyadarshini: Amruta Paranjape talked about crop cultivation and land reclamation activities in Tamil Nadu. Meanwhile, Rajani Panchang spoke about how destruction takes place in the name of development in Goa.

09: 27: Rajani Panchang: When I was doing my PhD, I was finding some evidences which showed a fossil – complete beach sediments. What are they? They are all evidences of how the earth and how the sea has moved, how the earth has evolved. And it was so sad that we had seen this on Airport Road, Dabolim road, also from NIO (National Institute of Oceanography, Goa) to University Road, we could see this shell layer, naturally deposited shell layer, which could probably be a deposit by the sea along the coastline, it was all there. And one fine day, they decided that they want to widen the roads. And this entire evidence of high sea level rise was just mowed down by the JCB. And it feels so sad that oh God, my only evidence which I could show, you know, my students, my children, because many people don't believe, and I think seeing is believing.

10:30 Subhra Priyadarshini: Given these multiple threats, that are submerging, displacing or otherwise turning India's geologically important formations into dust, leading geologists have been pushing for a Geoheritage and Geopark Bill, which essentially talks about creating sites to protect geological heritage with the involvement of local communities.

10: 55 Shweta Patil: Definitely, this bill is going to help us because if we want to show this heritage to the next generation, this bill is going to help the next generation to go and see these rocks and sections on their own. So, this bill is very, very important.

11:14 Suraj Bhosale: The people, local people and the industries will know that these are protected by the government. And it has, those features have, very significant value. So they are not allowed to touch them or destroy them, which will help for the future generation and also for the people working right now.

11:35 Subhra Priyadarshini: Scientists like Shweta and Suraj all agree that this proposed bill for geosites will be crucial for the conservation and the protection of important sites. Amruta also pointed out that this aspect of raising awareness is key.

11:53 Amruta Paranjape: I think the main key is to create awareness amongst people. So right from a broader perspective going down to the people who live in the area, for them to understand what is the importance of the rock next to them, is more important. So with this bill, at least we will have this start and getting the administration aware to do some activities, to have a check on the rampant destruction that is happening, maybe formally create geoparks, which we don't have right now in India.

12:26 Subhra Priyadarshini: To understand a little more about why it is so challenging yet important to preserve our treasures better for the future, we turned to Vijay Prakash Mishra or V P Mishra, who joined the Geological Survey of India in 1975. And today, he is still involved with it presently, as the Secretary of the Palaeontological Society of India. He recorded the world's oldest fossil whale and brought the centre of origin of whales from Egypt to the Indian subcontinent, which is now accepted worldwide.

13:03 Vijay Prakash Mishra: You know, archaeological sites, several archaeological sites we have in India, those are protected by a central law, central act. But there is no Government of India act at the moment which can declare a geoscientific site as a geoheritage site. The main problem which we are facing throughout India, is that maintenance is a problem, because the land normally belongs to the states. So the central government or the Geological Survey of India does declare these as geological monuments or geoheritage sites, but the maintenance is a problem.

13:49 Subhra Priyadarshini: I learned that worldwide with the International Union of Geological Sciences, we have UNESCO Geoparks. These are unified geographical areas where sites of international geological significance are managed with a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development, co-created with local communities. At present, there are 169 UNESCO global geoparks in 44 countries. India, sadly, has zero.

14:22 Vijay Prakash Mishra: With the seal of UNESCO, they get more popularity and the government there and the local administration provides funds to protect the area.

14:33 Subhra Priyadarshini: Geological Survey of India has identified 26 sites around the country to be developed as geoparks. V P Mishra explained that the idea behind the bill and its proposed geoparks is that it would bring in tourists so that local people and their state governments see some earnings and are incentivised to protect the country's geological heritage. Despite some scientists’ overwhelming support for this bill, there might be some reservations.

15: 07 Rajani Panchang: The sites which have been identified, I think, are not enough because India has a rich diversity of geoheritage sites. And that I think they have not been completely covered and much more can be covered.

15: 25 Subhra Priyadarshini: Overall, though, Rajani agrees with Mishra and countless others about the urgent need for the bill, but recommends that we think about it in a more holistic way.

15: 37 Rajani Panchang: So I really think that just passing a bill is not going to be enough because there is a question of economy, or urbanisation, over protection of these. We need to think of our geoheritage sites as sources of income. And as long as this debate remains, I really wonder if this bill will help. We really need to have geologists who are really, really active into it who understand the importance of these geological heritage that we have. Without that I think the bill will be incomplete.

16: 12 Subhra Priyadarshini: That is very true. So will the geoheritage bill be successful in protecting the country's vast fossil treasures? Only time will tell. But it's clear that change needs to happen soon before the country's geological formations, its fossils and all the heritage these contain, are ground out. And the study of geology and palaeontology, is confined only to the pages of a textbook.

Thanks for tuning in to this episode of the Nature India podcast. I'm your host Subhra Priyadarshini. We'll be back with more soon. Until then, if you liked what you heard, be sure to share it with friends and colleagues, and check out our archives for more in both English and Hindi.

17:19 Partner announcement: Thanks to the DBT Wellcome Trust India alliance for their support in producing this episode.

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