About a year or so ago, I was in Allahabad and, out of curiosity about my old home town and the august institutions that were based there, did a round of the city. One of the well-respected institutions I chose to visit that day was Hind' S'hitya Samm'lan. Once in there, I visited their library-cum archival collection of books and, then, dipped in to visit their publications department.
There I was met by three gentlemen, slouched in their easy chairs and busily chatting about some inconsequential subject of universal importance. I picked a couple of books off their well-stocked shelves more or less to get a measure of their standards of editing and production values. The very second book that I took out proved a shocker to me; The title was Bauddha-k'l'n-Bh'rat-k'-Bh'gol. I cast a cursory glance at the contents page and then shuffled a few more pages. This was book of geography, ostensibly written to assess and describe the extent of the Buddhist India. And yet, there was'nt a single map of India of that period, not even the size of a postage stamp to give the reader any idea of the territorial extent of India of that period. I thought, surely that can't be right. The book was a recent publication and author had obtained a PH. D. degree for writing the said book. Whatever possessed the gentleman to write a tome on geography without inserting a map therein, I wondered.
Then it dawned upon me. We, I, India, don't have a great cartographic tradition. A European tourist wouldn't go to toilet while shopping in his/ her hometown without checking the location thereof on a site map; and in India we can spend a lifetime traversing the length and breadth of the country, trading our services and wares and paying homage to pilgrim spots of our choice without ever looking at a map. Our newspapers carry the world news without ever inserting a map illustrating the events mentioned therein.
Recently, there was a news item relating to the killing of an Indian civil engineer, by Islamic terrorists who did not want him to be working on a road-building project. Inference drawn in the narrative of the event was that, if and when completed, the said road would increase trade between India and Iran without having to pas through Pakistan. Now a map showing the route of this under-construction road would have instantly enlightened the people reading the news item in the papers, but obviously neither the editors of the newspapers nor the publishers thereof think that maps have a legitimate role to play in informing the readership (and the audience of the electronic media). Basically, informing the people to the best of one's ability is not considered a duty, but a chore.
A few years back, India was involved in a serious defensive war with Pakistan in Kargil area of Jammu & Kashmir. Thousands of our Jawans'our sons and brothers, friends and neighbors'were risking their lives to defend the territorial integrity of our country. Throughout that period of crisis, I heard hundreds of official statements regarding the progress of our military campaign and read many, many news items in the newspapers. And yet, till today, I have no idea of where in the whole of that Himalayan battlefield the place called Dras is where pitched battles took place between the rival sides.
In the West, every single print-media establishment and every electronic news station has an in-house cartographer ready to supply a location map of the events being handled that day. In India, our publishers don't even think that a map is a necessary element of a narrative'be it a news item or a travelogue.
I have dwelt on this question very often and discussed the issue with many an intelligent and enlightened friends in India. According to them, the problem does not just lie with them; it flows from the mindless, unthinking, and hidebound bureaucracy as well. To publish a map, especially if in connection with a defence-oriented story, the editor-publishers have to seek clearance from three-to-five ministries and, then, apply in triplicate to the Ordnance Survey of India to obtain the required map, or any section of a map. And even after this, the publisher must put in a rejoinder or two to disown any responsibility for the accuracy or reliability of the cartographic data contained therein.
I have learnt through my friendly cartographic publishers that they are not permitted to publish any road-markings touching our country's external boundaries, even within 200 kilometers thereof. So road may be shown going to Goa, but it must not be shown to touch the seafront! So stupid is this stranglehold of bureaucracy on the cartographic information that I traversed almost 300-kms visiting the Holy shrine of Badrinath up in the Himalayas, on a zig-zag matrix of a road, but could not get hold of a map of the area to check as to how close to the Chinese frontier we were travelling.
So scared out bureaucracy is of letting any information leak out of their control that some of the hoardings and cautionary notices, placed by the British authorities, during the second World War, at such innocuous places like electricity substations, national grid pylons and railway tracks, prohibiting photography thereof are still there and being repainted year after year even now. These bumbling Babus seem to do this in order to protect the core of our military-sensitive and strategically important information. They haven't yet learnt that those seeking such information about our defence installations have access to satellite photography and the internet. Highly detailed maps of every inch of India's border territories are on sale in ordinary bookstores in the Western countries. Some of these have been published and issued by the US Airforce; others have been put into circulation by the UK authorities. And every potential enemy has had copies of these in their files.
And when I tried to investigate as to what is 'the quality and accuracy of the cartographic information' being so jealously guarded by these guardians of our 'sensitive military secrets', I was shocked to find out that they knew much less than the local rikshaw-puller or even a streetside porter about the lay of land. The most worthless and wasteful purchase I ever made of a cartographic publication was the National Atlas of India, issued by the special cell functioning under the aegis of the Ordnance Survey of India. It was not simply a set of blank sheets of badly-printed, dusty-colored paper with a few place-names jotted around for the sake of calling the same 'a map'; these sheets were not even worth wiping any baby's bum with.
How many of us know as to how many coastal islands India has in her sovereign control? Do we even know how many offshore islands are part of Indian territory? I spent a couple of days and nights floating around in a boat in the backwaters of Kerala coast. The local tourist office could not tell me as to how many islands there were within these backwaters.
This cartographic deficit, this lack of knowledge about our geographical heritage in our information-bank will cost us dear. How can a nation expect her sons and daughters to defend its territory if they don't even know this territory?