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Srilankan Survey Department 200th Anniversary

Ranasinghe Silva
Surveyor General, Surveyor General’s Office, PO Box 506
No. 150 Kirula Road, Narahenpita, ZColombo – 5, Srilanka
Email: [email protected]

On 2nd of August 2000, Sri Lanka Survey Department celebrated the 200th anniversary of her contribution to the nation. Months long celebrations organised islandwide culminated on the date of birth with the General Conference well attended by foreign and local dignitaries, and addressed by the Head of the State, Her Excellency, the President of Sri Lanka, Madam Chandrika Bandaranaike Cumaranatunga.

The Survey Department, in its present organisational structure, working under the direction of a Surveyor General, came into being 200 years ago when the Government of the day wanted a more efficient alternative to the “mode of survey and measurement of land” existing at that time. Over a period of two centuries this institution that started with six surveyors has at present developed to be the premier organisation providing spatial data for the island nation that has a land area of 64000 square kilometers and a population of 18 million approximately.

The primary triangulation of the country carried out during the middle of the 19th century was very prominent among the truly scientific foundation measures laid to build it as a National Survey Agency. The triangulation network, expanding across the entire land area, had achieved a remarkable level of accuracy under the conditions prevailing at that era. This task was accomplished using two baselines established in Western and Eastern coasts of the island.

The topographic map series of the country drawn to the scale of 1:63,360 (one mile to an inch) during last and first quarters of the 19th and 20th centuries respectively, served national needs until it was replaced with a metric equivalent produced in the last quarter of the 20th century. The department was capable of undertaking the production of a more comprehensive map series of scale 1:10,000 for the entire country and publication of a National Atlas at the turn of the last century, thereby manifesting the role of National Mapping Agency.

The department completed the Geodetic leveling network of Sri Lanka in 1930 and this task maintained the highest order of accuracy possible at that time. This control network served as the basis for many Engineering Surveys that the department carried out in advance of many development projects that are heavily contributing to the well being of the rural and urban sectors of the population at present.

In addition to the field cadres deployed all over 25 administrative district of the country, the Department has an Air Survey Branch, a Remote Sensing Center and a Printing Section, all equipped with modern technology. Training Institution that awards degrees in Surveying Sciences is the component through which the Department supply trained personnel to the spatial data industry in the country.

The role of the Department in the newly introduced concept of Title Registration is going to be the biggest challenge it is facing in the 200 year long history. The preparation of cadastral maps for 6 million parcels of land will be the target to be achieved with a departmental cadre of 1,000 surveyors plus an equally strong private sector.

The energetic Minister of Agriculture and Lands of Sri Lanka, Hon. D.M. Jayaratne, who was instrumental in getting legal enactment required for this work passed by the parliament, sets his targets to complete this task at earliest possible. It is interesting to mention here that the idea of introducing the registration of title to replace the system of registration of deed was mooted in the middle of the 19th century. No government, since then, could get it off the ground for various reasons. Now that the legal support has been secured after one and half century long struggle, Hon. Minister expects to pass the benefits of it to the vast majority of the population at earliest possible, specially to the rural poor. The Department, being the identified source for the production of cadastral map for Title Registration, is preparing to achieve this objective.

The capacity and the speed required by the Department to carry out this huge task are being build up gradually through a series of modernising activities such as introduction of GPS equipment, up grading the accuracy of control network, digitalising the storage devices and automating the data capture and processing. The task is very challenging and surely has to be accomplished with distinction if the Department is to satisfy customer demands, both in time and quality, and remain as the leader in the business of Spatial Data during the new century.

The sequence of activities organised for the bicentenary were selected to display the involvement of surveying and mapping work in the public life, during the past as well as in the future. The permanent exhibition room opened in the Surveyor General’s office in Colombo, gives an idea on the life of the Surveyor during the past two centuries, thereby reminding the visitors the days of baseline measurements, triangulation arcs, observation towers, and night time observations using light signals.

Fact that the school children are a section of the customer community of the mapping business, is not unknown to many in the profession. Part of the programme of the anniversary was dedicated to educate the former significance of the event and on the developments in the profession of which the products they use. School children and teachers were invited to educational centres in the localities and awareness programmes and workshops were conducted by the departmental officers. It is worth mentioning that these were organised even in the troubled Northern and Eastern areas of the country. The interest shown on the side of these amateur participants, particularly on modern space applications, was really encouraging for the organisers.

he high tech event of the programme was the Technical Sessions held in the National Conference Center, Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall in Colombo. The Technical Sessions centered on the achievements of the Department in the contexts of Global Trends were addressed by eminent scholars from FIG, University of Iowa in USA, and Blom International of Norway, all belonging to the profession. The discussions were well attended by local academics and the professionals within and outside the department. The questions from those who are in close association with Cadastre, GPS, Remote Sensing, Photogrammetry, Cartography and GIS clearly showed that the expensive goods and services, dressed in their new outfits provided by the modern technologies, are the matters of interest for the developing world.

The Survey Education in Sri Lanka also has a long history when compared to the other professional groups in the country. The surveyors of 19th century were mostly the Europeans and the learners had to understudy their seniors in the field. First formal course of training was commenced in 1896 in Colombo at the Technical College.

Later, this course was entrusted to the Survey Department and shifted to hill country in 1920 to present location. This seat of learning that remained as a branch of the Department till 1969 was expanded to an Institute of Surveying and Mapping under the United Nations Development Programme. Since 1990, it was granted the status of a degree awarding institution and the institute now offers a Bachelor Degree Course of Surveying Science. The department has the idea of further developing it into an organisation that can provide more educational opportunities in other land related disciplines.

Mapping of the country is done by the Department mainly using phtogrammetric techniques. The air survey branch established in early 1950s carries out air photography with the aircraft owned by the Department. This branch is fully geared for digital data capture, computerised editing and digital storage of data. Soft copy Photogrammetry and three dimensional data capture are the latest techniques introduced to upgrade the quality of work and the skills of the staff.

Remote Sensing was also introduced to Sri Lanka by the Centre for Remote Sensing in the Survey Department in late 1970s. Since then the technology was incorporated to provide Spatial Data of certain order of accuracy and to produce Land Use maps.

The future of the Department depends on the response it shows to the customers’ demands for reliable and current spatial data. Sri Lanka being a country that attempts to take quick steps to move the nation towards the status of a developed country, cannot wait for time consuming methods of data capture and processing.

The department in its mission statement declares that their task “is to provide high quality land information products and services through professionally qualified and dedicated personnel”. Performance only can indicate how successful will the Department be in accomplishing this mission during the next century.