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Atlas Melodrama

Think of the fate of students who answer questions based on the figures given in one atlas and the examiner relying on his marking and evaluation on another.

In connection with a book-writing project I have been consulting numerous atlases and maps issued by different publishers and organisations of repute from India and abroad. I am baffled to find that the values of length, height and depth of various physiographic features in several cases differ from publication to publication, and, disconcertingly, sometimes in the same publication at different places. In many cases these variations are significantly large. I can understand that slight variations could crop up while converting whole Imperial units into SI units, and vice versa, but these would be of very small order.

  • would like to refer to only three atlases that are currently meant for use by school children in India, as they affect the credibility of geographical knowledge that is being imparted. These are School Atlas published by Survey of India (2nd edition, 1987), Oxford School Atlas (30th Edition, 2000) and Frank School Atlas (1985). I shudder to think of the fate of students who answer questions based on the figures given in one atlas and the examiner relying on his marking and evaluation on another. This is much more perturbing when Indian geographical features are involved. I would suppose that in these matters Survey of India would be the final authority. But is it? I would give only a few examples:
  • The height of the Trisul Peak in SoI Atlas in the panorama and map on pp. 50-51 is shown as 7140 m, but in the map of Uttar Pradesh on p. 46 it is given as 7138 m — a difference of two metres. There could possibly be other such discrepancies as well but somebody must find time to check them. Apparently, the right hand does not know what the left is doing!
  • The pictorial representation of the Himalyan Peaks on page 23 of Frank Atlas shows the height of Gauri Shankar as 7145 m. and SoI Atlas shows as 7144 m. The difference is possibly in converting feet into whole metres and may not be considered as being of any consequence but would certainly be so to a prospective examinee.
  • The lengths of important rivers of the world given in SoI Atlas on page 1 and in the Oxford Atlas on page 84 are entirely different. To give but one instance: the length of the Nile River shown in the SoI Atlas is 6690 km.; in the Oxford Atlas (p. 84), 5793 km.

How can such discrepancies, sometimes very large, be explained? I have started wondering whether these cartographic publishers check properly the data that they show on maps produced by them, and whether they recheck the data while issuing a new edition. It is rather shocking that such prestigious publishers as the Oxford University Press do not care to recheck the data when issuing a new edition. An example will suffice: the twentieth edition of their School Atlas (1958, page 9), shows two Ross Deeps, one in the Atlantic Ocean and the other in the Indian Ocean, the depth of each is given in fathoms. In the 25th edition (1982, page 8), they are shown in metres and feet, but the depth of Ross Deep in the Indian Ocean is not given. This omission is carried over to the latest 30th edition (2000, page 84). This means that for over 42 years – and possibly more, the Oxford editors have not been able to detect any discrepancy, if not error, in the graphics! Another point: The coordinate location of the Atlantic Ross Deep is given in all editions but the same of the Indian Ocean Ross Deep is omitted. I wonder whether there are two different Ross Deeps and where they are situated. Perhaps the publishers would care to clarify.

I do not think that private publishers of atlases and maps have surveying facilities of their own, and for their compilation obviously rely on the maps brought out by the concern national surveys and other survey organisations, though they may be doing some computing themselves. This letter is just to highlight the lack of reliability of these works of reference, and is not meant to be an inquest. I have chosen for example these three atlases as they are supposed to be the most consulted publications by school children in India. This type of confusion keeps occurring in almost all the atlases and maps that I have consulted from some countries. Is there no international organisation to monitor such publications? Incidentally, an attractive feature of the SoI Atlas is the panorama of the great Himalayan peaks and the maps of the Great Himalayas. A small panorama of the peaks is also given in the Frank Atlas. However, in both the cases many of the peaks marked have been given their heights but their names are not mentioned. This is also true of some other maps in these atlases and numerous other maps published by the survey where the heights have been marked with dots but their names are not printed. Surely, these peaks and other features have names. The usefulness of these maps would have been greatly enhanced if the names also had been given. In all these cases there is enough space to print the names with cluttering. I would like to suggest that these publishers may consider doing so in feature editions of their maps.

This brings me to another point. On contacting on Sol office in Lucknow, I was informed that the edition of their Atlas, published in 1987 is the latest available. Obviously, the SoI has not brought out a revised edition of the atlas since then because apparently they have not been able to dispose off the existing one. It is not surprising because this Atlas is generally not available in bookshops and therefore is not sold widely, as it should be. This is unfortunate as it is a good Atlas. Possibly, it is sold only in the SoI sales outlets and one needs single-minded determination to buy it provided, of course, if one knows that such a thing exists. This seems to be true if the SoI sales office in Lucknow is anything to go by. It is situated in an out-of-the-way place accessible only to those intrepid souls who are well- informed and determined to located it. Some map-users are surprised when I tell them that there is a Survey of India office in Lucknow! I have a folded tourist map of Nepal where practically every peak is named with height and other details given-such a map is really useful. Can we expect the same from SoI? I hope other readers would also care to react.

S. M. Mathur
Geological Consultant,
B-15 Alok Puri, Ravindrapalli,
Lucknow- 226 016.
Uttar Pradesh, India.