Friday, April 6, 2018

Crisis In Indian Palaeontology

This is incredibly sad reading.

Two recent articles highlight the utter state of disarray Indian paleontology finds itself in.

Less offical importance, low budgets, low career prestige, no legal protection for fossil sites, no local fossil repositories to store collections and no national museum with an attached well funded research program.

From the article by Sanjay Kumar in Science:

With few legal protections, sites often fall victim to looting and development. And although funds are scarce for all science in India, the plight of paleontology is particularly acute. Little money is available for excavations and for acquiring and curating specimens, and the country lacks a national institution in which its natural heritage can be studied and preserved.

All of this discourages young people from entering the field. Cash-strapped universities are curtailing or axing paleontology courses, says Ashok Sahni, of Panjab University in Chandigarh, a leading figure in Indian paleontology. Sahni, best known for his finds of dinosaur nesting sites in Jabalpur and insects trapped in amber in Vastan, in Gujarat state, says he has watched waves of colleagues retire—with few young talents stepping in to replace them. "There is no critical mass of researchers left," he says. "Indian paleontology is dying."

..and Sreelatha Menon in The Wire writes about the problems in palaeontology, and more broadly, geology education:

“In well known centres of paleontological teaching and research, such as BHU, Lucknow University, Panjab University, Jadavpur University, etc., the number of palaeontologists has gone down drastically and new, prestigious educational institutions like the IISERs are not showing much interest in hiring palaeontologists,” Prasad said (IISERs: Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research). “So the country has very few palaeontologists working on large invertebrate fossils at present.”

Pratul Saraswati, a micropalaeontologist in the department of earth sciences, IIT Bombay, thinks it’s not about people not being interested in palaeontology. “If you ask me to name some micropalaeontologists other than myself, I won’t be able to give you more than five names. If you ask Prof Sahni to name some vertebrate palaeontologists, he won’t be able to name more than three or four.”

“The problem is with geology departments as a whole across the country. Except in the IITs and central universities, just one or two faculties teach all the subjects coming under geology – and that includes palaeontology,” Saraswati said. “There is no faculty for geology across India. So it is not just palaeontology but all the subjects coming under geology that are taking a beating.”

At the IITs, every subject is taught by a specialist – which is good because, according to Saraswati, “It is difficult for a non-specialist to teach palaeontology.” But in the other universities, “One or two teaching all the subjects in geology is fine till graduation. For post-graduation and research,” that will not be enough.

A couple of weeks ago I visited the Dept. of Geology at Sinhagad College of Science in Pune. One of the faculty there is working on the sequence stratigraphy of the Cretaceous deposits of the Cauvery Basin in Tamil Nadu, South India. She mentioned that many of the famous outcrops and fossil sites are being destroyed as farmlands and small villages and towns expand. This story is repeated elsewhere across India.

That really struck me hard. During my undergraduate years I had visited that area on a field trip. I saw and collected ammonoids, echnoids, molluscs, corals and plant fossils in the field and had come back with a finer appreciation of the stratigraphic and sedimentologic context in which fossils are entombed and preserved. In retrospect, we should not have collected so many fossils. But in those days we weren't taught, and neither did we introspect, about ethical issues regarding fossil collection and outcrop integrity.

India's natural history must be given more importance. It will be a real tragedy if these localities are lost to future generations.

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