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Mapping the country since 1767: Survey General of India completes 250 years today

Through the Survey of India, the East India Company mapped the entire region and its data.

india Updated: Apr 10, 2017 08:23 IST
Through the Survey of India, the East India Company mapped the entire region and its data.
Through the Survey of India, the East India Company mapped the entire region and its data.(HT File)

If the Battle of Plassey in 1757 laid the foundation of British rule in India, the Survey General of India, established ten years later by the British East India Company, helped it expand its footprint across the subcontinent.

As the institute, one of the oldest scientific establishments in India, completes 250 years on Monday, it continues to touch the life of the common man even today.

The SGI’s mandate ranges from demarcation of state and international boundaries, mapping of topography, making maps for urban planning and defence installations to reading deformities of dams and mapping rivers, flood plains, and roads.

Firmly establishing itself in Bengal after the Battle of Buxar in 1764, the British East India Company felt the need to map and survey the subcontinent, not only to collect revenue, but also help in military expeditions.

Through the Survey of India, the East India Company mapped the entire region and its data, like the measurement of the sea level, still remains the reference point for several south and east Asian countries.

The institute first published a ‘Map of Hindoostan’ in 1783, depicting the subcontinent comprising India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, besides parts of Afghanistan and Burma.

Read: Is Mount Everest shrinking? Survey of India to ‘re-measure’ peak’s height

It also prepared maps for neighbouring countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka, then known as Burma and Ceylon respectively, and several southeast Asian countries where the British had imperial and economic interests.

The SGI also undertook the Herculean task of carrying out the Great Trigonometric Survey from 1802. The survey laid a solid foundation for mapping the country in a scientific manner.

The exercise was started from St Thomas Mount, a small hillock in Chennai (then Madras), and extended till Mussorie.

It is estimated that the massive exercise, which lasted for over four decades from 1802 to 1841, claimed more Indian lives than World War I and II combined.

“We lost people to malaria, typhoid, cholera, wild animals, sun stroke, frostbite, forest, rivers, avalanches and even bandits. Some were even slaughtered out of fear,” said Lt Col Kunal Borkar, Staff Officer with the SGI.

Started by Col William Lambton, who himself lost his life in the exercise, the work was carried forward by the then Surveyor General of India Sir George Everest, after whom the world’s highest peak is named.

Interestingly, Mt Everest’s height was measured by the SGI, with the basic calculations done by mathematician and “chief computer” Radhanath Sikdar.

At that time, the calculations were challenged by many in Europe as they believed the Alps were higher. However, Sikdar’s calculations prevailed.

Today, the bulk of the work done by the SGI revolves around defence -- it prepares a different set of maps for the armed forces. It first did aerial photography in 1927 and has now moved to geo-spatial maps. The use of UAV technology in mapping is also in the offing.

“After the 2005 National Policy of 2005, we have Open Series Maps, which can be accessed by general public, while the maps made for defence are restricted to armed forces,” Borkar said.

Other departments like the ISRO have also entered the arena of making geo-spatial maps, but the SGI boasts of “gruelling” groundwork to get precise figures for their maps.

“If the institution exists even after 250 years, it speaks a lot about its importance and relevance in today’s age,” said Swarna Subba Roa, the Surveyor General of India.