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Those demented lines of lassitude

A big, blue board informs us that this is a ‘Restricted Area’. The three sentries behind the sandbags, totting carbines and other...

Written by Shobhit Mahajan |
April 21, 2005

A big, blue board informs us that this is a ‘Restricted Area’. The three sentries behind the sandbags, totting carbines and other assorted arms look surprisingly benign though!

We have just stopped by the Survey of India office in Dehradun. It is a Friday afternoon and I thought it a wonderful opportunity to stock up on maps. I have always been a great fan of the Survey of India maps—large, clear, well-produced and ridiculously cheap. I have several of them. Knowledge of geography is, to my mind, very essential for a well-rounded education. One frequently reads statistics about how more than 50 per cent school students in the US can’t even identify their own country on a map. I think, we might be doing a shade better than this, though my own impression is that the general interest in maps is waning. And this is what makes it all the more important for good, affordable maps to be easily available for everyone. But alas, the nodal agency for doing this—the Survey of India—is nowhere near being up to speed for this.

Set up by the British in 1767, it has the distinction of being the oldest scientific department of the Government of India. The charter of the Survey of India, as the website helpfully tells me, is vast—from carrying out geodetic surveys to research and development in cartography, printing. Any map published in India has to be approved by the Survey of India. I step into the ‘‘welcome’’ office where I have to fill in my name, address in a register. I am told by a visibly ‘‘non-welcoming’’ type of a person to switch off my mobile phone. The Map Sales Office is a small room in a building with a 10-foot verandah and has another ‘‘non-welcoming’’ personage sitting at a computer. On my asking for maps, I am told to go to another office from where I am guided to another dusty room where I explain the purpose of my visit to an officious looking person. He helpfully tells me to go right back to the sales office!

The sales person, having achieved his objective of convincing me that nothing in life comes easy, is now more receptive. He asks me which maps I want. I ask for a catalogue and am told that there is none. I very diffidently ask to look at the maps kept behind him so that I could choose; that I am told is obviously not permissible. By this time, my patience has got the better of my interest in geography and I randomly chose a few maps and ask for the bill. The gentleman confidently opens up database and starts entering the details ( with a single finger!) of the maps to produce a bill. At last after the fourth attempt I get a computer generated bill. I finally come out of the complex, thankful that only about an hour was wasted to get some random maps of dubious utility. On thinking about this incident, I realised that the experience was not unique. Everywhere, one finds a reluctance to part with their wares.

If these departments work out even a minimal marketing plan, I am sure that not only will they benefit from the revenue generation, but will also fulfill a major need—whether for good maps or cheap reproductions of great Indian paintings. Instead, the idea is to deter everyone but the most determined customer. Most others like me will just have to make do with looking at poor quality maps on the web!

The writer is professor at the Dept. of Physics & Astrophysics at Delhi University

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