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India’s oldest scientific organisation, the Survey of India (SOI), was set up in 1767, 10 years before the world’s oldest democracy the US was even born! Americans were still fighting a bloody civil war when India’s official map maker started gathering geographical wisdom of the sub-continent. Working silently, hidden away from public discourse for so long, the agency now wants to be heard, become transparent and even seeks to climb the Mount Everest to assert its new found independence. The Survey of India, now headquartered in Dehradun, has done great silent service in the last 250 years by being the official map maker for India and keeping records of the exact international borders of the country. On its 250th birthday, Swarna Subba Rao, the Surveyor General of India, proclaimed last week at the Geospatial World Forum here, “For 250 years, the Survey of India has been silent. Now we should speak openly to the people.”
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Encouraging words from an agency that most line departments usually despise since in these last 250 years the SOI has kept quality geographical information hidden away from Indian citizens, hiding most maps behind firewalls thanks to military restrictions, sometimes for the right reasons but the advent of the Internet and products like Google Maps and ISRO’s Bhuwan have made some of these restrictions totally anachronistic.
This year for the first time, national mapping agency of India is embracing the Internet in a big way and very soon all the 4,800 quality maps called ‘topographical sheets’ of the open series domain will be made available for free download using the Aadhaar number.
Rao says, “This will encourage citizens’ participation through crowdsourcing in enhancing the value of its products.”
Till now a cumbersome paper trail was the only way to procure these maps and most of the data especially pertaining to the border regions and coastal zones was all out of bounds.
This new found trust in digital India and transparency was initiated by Science and Technology Minister Harsh Vardhan when he visited SOI on July 13, 2016.
It may come as a surprise to most of us that the true height of the Mount Everest was actually accurately estimated by the SOI way back in 1855 and since then the height 8,848 metres has remained the gold standard for what was then called Peak XV. It was our SOI which got it officially recognised it as Mount Everest in 1865 to honour its worthy officer George Everest.
But it was an Indian Radhanath Sikdar who found the true height of the highest peak of the world in 1855, no wonder this illustrious surveyor’s official designation was ‘chief computer’. Ahem, so can we also credit the Survey of India for coining the phrase ‘computer’?
No doubt, Sikdar was a human computer who achieved the impossible feat of measuring the exact height of the Mount Everest with visual and mechanical devices. Incidentally the first electronic computer made it into the civilisation only in 1936. To complete the history the first humans ascended Mount Everest only in 1953, almost a century after Sikdar the ‘human computer’ gave its true height.
For the last 162 years, the world has believed that the height of the Mount Everest is 8,848 metres above mean sea level. But now there are rumblings in the scientific community that height of Mount Everest may have changed for two reasons every year as the Himalayas rise by 5 mm every year.
This means the mountain would have risen by about one metre in the last 162 years, as a consequence of a geological quirk which makes the Indian plate go under the Asian plate and which keeps the Himalayas growing every year. In addition Rao says many people have raised doubts that the massive 7.8 magnitude 2015 earthquake that struck Nepal may have caused some widespread upheavals in the region.
So on SOI’s 250th birthday, Rao seeks to send an Indo-Nepali mountaineering expedition to re-calibrate the exact height of the Mount Everest.
A 30-member team of mountaineers will be equipped with the most modern surveying equipment including digital global positioning system devices to come up with the correct estimate of the height of the Mount Everest. A sum of Rs 5 crore has been allocated and hopefully within this year the expedition will reach the summit.
Rao says one of the reasons of re-visiting the Mount Everest on SOI’s birthday is to try and figure out the exact difference between heights estimated through satellites and through actual ground truthing.
Satellites tend to give erroneous figures asserts Rao. The SOI, Mount Everest expedition will also make assessments of the changes in gravity one encounters as one ascends the mountain and simultaneously visual measurements will be made from several far off locations.
Rao says after 250 years, India’s official map maker is opening its doors to understand a new India where maps and smartphones have today converged to make citizens more empowered and in this race to embrace a digital India, the map maker wants to reassert its supremacy by becoming less secretive and give up its image of being a dinosaur.