The statement of US-based scientist Muneendra Kumar that India was endangering the lives of its war fighters and jeopardising its modernisation plans, by using the outdated and distorted 19th century datum and mapping systems, has rattled the scientific community.
As this warning comes from the world authority on geodesy, WGS 84 (World Geodetic System) GPS (Global Positioning System) and mapping systems, Indian authorities are not completely disregarding it as at stake are war fighters and the future growth of the country.
Incidentally, his observations have come at a time when the Survey of India (SOI) and the Military Survey Directorate are engaged in producing the Defence Series Maps (DSMs). "My statement will kick of a storm in India, but it is for the good of my birth country, not for any personal gains," Kumar said.
In an exclusive interview to the Hindustan Times at his Montgomery Village in the suburbs of Washington, Kumar had said the 19th century datum could not provide good coordinates, which were critical to satisfy today’s high accuracy requirements, geodetic datum, maps and charts, air and marine navigation and weapon systems.
Kumar has also written to President APJ Abdul Kalam in which he has strongly suggested that the SOI should stop using the 19th century Indian datum, 1980’s "solutions" of the West and an invalid datum that does not exist. He has insisted, "Correct mapping of the DSMs is very critical as anything less can lead to life and death of a war fighter."
Kumar had responded to Kalam’s suggestion that a network of organisations and individuals in the field of mapping should provide inputs for the development of cartographic products required by the nation.
Kalam had asked them to bring out large scale maps of programmes like inter-linking of rivers, survey and resurvey of cadastres, urban development, metro rail and waterways as well as provide inputs to drought, flood and earthquake prone areas for effective planning of disaster management system.
Though the SOI contests Kumar’s claim, prominent professors of IIT-Kanpur and IIT-Bombay seem to partially agree with him. They feel both the government and the SOI should redefine old datum on a priority basis. They, however, admit changing all the maps to a new datum was a huge task.
Prof Madhav N Kulkarni, Department of Civil Engineering, IIT-Bombay, was in charge of the project launched by the SOI in the late 80s to redefine old datum. Urging the government to pay immediate attention to the project relegated to the backburner, Kulkarni said India urgently needed Everest 2007.
Kulkarni said, "The problem is we are mixing oranges and apples." While all Indian topographical maps still use Everest 1880 ellipsoid, GPS uses WGS84 coordinating system. The solution is to either use WGS 84 and GPS or conversion factors.
Prof Ramesh Singh and Anup K Prasad of IIT-Kanpur expressed similar views. The professors said the geodetic system followed by SOI to produce and distribute maps is inadequate due to the fact that it does not give precise coordinates especially for frontiers along the Himalayas and are highly unsuitable for military purposes. In India all the maps, including physical, geological and topographical, do not get updated regularly, they said. The IIT professors, however, did not agree with Kumar’s views on WGS84.
The SOI claims otherwise. Brigadier B Nagarajan, Director Geodetic and Research Branch, Dehradun, said the SOI has switched to Geocentric Reference Datum for mapping on par with other advanced nations. He said India was not using WGS 84 datum either in civil or defence mapping. He said WGS 84 as well as ITRF (International Terrestrial Reference Frame) varies by few centimetres in their translation and orientation between them. Since GPS uses WGS84 coordinates system, they are used for updating maps taking care that error introduced is within plot table error.