The Zoological Survey of India has an illustrious history. On 1st July, 1916, the organisation was instituted with a mission to “…to promote survey, exploration
and research leading to the advancement in our knowledge of various aspects of exceptionally rich life of the erstwhile British Indian Empire” (Emphasis mine). Alfred William Alcock was a British physician-naturalist, a common breed in those colonial days when doctors were still excited about working in “difficult” and remote areas and doubled as explorers, naturalists and prolific writers without any of those “rural area incentives” under the present-day National Rural Health Mission that miserably fail to entice doctors to work even in small towns, let alone remote areas. Those were days when being a doctor in the service of the “empire” was still a reputed member of the “civil service” – a cadre of the service was designated the Indian Medical Service with illustrious doctors such as Ronald Ross; a cadre undone ever since. Alcock turned out to be a prolific writer, traveller, doctor and a scientist. He worked in many parts of the country ranging from the North-west Frontier Province in today’s Af-Pak region and as a Surgeon-naturalist on the Indian Marine Survey. His survey results are in 17 volumes and he also wrote an 8 volume narrative of his experience in Indian seas as “A naturalist in Indian seas”.
Like many other doctors who left their medicine behind to pursue natural history, Alcock in the course of time found himself superintending the Indian Museum in Calcutta when one day in 1903 he was ordered by the Viceroy, Lord Curzon to “to vacate the gallery of Fishes at a moment’s notice.” His protestations and support from trustees of the museum prevented the damage to the fish and other collections. Considering such experiences and the wealth of knowledge to be gained by his and future generations, in a letter that was apparently taken seriously by the British administration, he urged for the creation of the Zoological Survey of India. He wrote “…zoology is…a branch of pure science pregnant with human interest, important to the state in matters of education, in matters agricultural and veterinary, and in the vital matter of public health. He suggested the establishment of an Indian Zoological Survey with a museum and laboratory administered by zoologists along the lines of the Geological and Botanical Surveys.”
I can’t but miss the irony. Today the website of ZSI boldly proclaims that it “..has maintained its primary objectives unchanged from its inception”. Apparently, this is true – for none of their collections are accessible to researchers, let alone lay people. While the 5-odd million specimens sitting at the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian) far away at Washington DC are indexed and searchable online through a simple search our own “premier organisation” wrote to me in bold letters in their RTI response that the details of the 41,291 bird specimens that they hold cannot be shared with me
because “..some of the registers are old and fragile”.
The ZSI holds some very important and heritage collections – the collections of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and the erstwhile Indian Museum were inherited by them. In addition to this, several other type specimens of extinct and extant species are held at ZSI – albeit in secret. The sheer apathy of the institution in making information available is evident in its website – a type-specimen of terrible design conspiring with lack of information to make the user experience as unproductive as an application under RTI.
And reform does not come easy either. When our maverick minister with the coolest haircut in the cabinet tried to shave off a bit of the apathy through structural reform of the ZSI, the bureaucratic machinery swung into action to scuttle all such moves. Although thorough evaluations have proposed specific suggestions and new organisation structures and mandates, nothing has come even two years after the most recent task force report. Shyamal captures this wonderfully in his essay “Tax-payer funded science in India” – where the mere apathy and lack of access to public collections and repositories hinders research. It is not for lack of a secure job, poor infrastructure, lacking mandate or unavailable data that organisations like ZSI are not producing. It appears to be sheer apathy that our premier institutions can get away with such responses under Right to Information Act. It is another matter that I never needed to establish that I have a right as a citizen to ask for such basic details of heritage collections for which this nearly 100-year old body has been established!
This is of course merely a rant before I send off the first appeal. I am not the one to accept “old and fragile records” as an excuse for not making available details of our heritage collections on the internet or through RTI. Perhaps, a letter also to the “Panel on scientific data of public interest”?
* Update: Another RTI filed with yet another premier institute, the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. Lot more data will be out in the open if this works.
* Thanks to Shyamal and Kullu.