Is Himalayan Geology Tainted?

Allegations are mounting as colleagues say scientist's field findings were made up.

 The sparks continue to fly around Panjab University, Chandigarh geologist Vishwa Jit Gupta, who was accused last April by an Australian scientist of having made fraudulent reports of fossil discoveries over the last two decades (Mar/April 1989 Himal). If the charges stick, much of the geological history of the Himalaya would be open to question because Gupta has reported and written on fossil discoveries for the last 20 years. The overall impact on the study of the formation of the Himalayan mountains, would be immense and the work and reputation of scores of scientists who worked with Gupta would be jeopardised.

In September, the Geological Survey of India finally set up a five-man panel of experts to investigate the charges made by Australian John A. Talent. Meanwhile, the British science journal Nature, which first carried Talent´s allegations, has printed a rebuttal by Gupta, as well as a series of letters from past co-authors of Gupta, all of whom criticise Gupta.

Talent maintains that Gupta misrepresented discoveries of prehistoric organisms called conodonts in Bhutan, India and Nepal. Further, Gupta was vague about the location of findings and that Gupta duped scientists all over the world, into co-authoring papers based on specimens he claimed to have found in the Himalaya.

Defending himself in the 7 September issue of Nature, Gupta, who is a senior professor at the Centre of Advanced Study in Geology in Chandigarh, states that "it is seldom possible to do fieldwork in the Himalayas by oneself" and that his collections were made with various teams of scientists. He says that conditions for geological fieldwork were very poor 25 years ago, in the remote parts of the Himalaya, and that the Indian Government did not allow the use of detailed topographic or army maps, leading to difficulties in giving precise locations.

Writes Gupta: "Talent proclaims that I have been able to fool all of the people all of the time. The period concerned is a quarter of a century, and the number of people– all of them highly regarded paleontologists –more than 60. The contention is unbelievable–Talent has made sweeping pronouncements on Himalayan geology. Yet, he is not an authority on the subject. I can only conclude that his attack on me was made for two reasons–to draw attention to himself and to deflect criticism of his own failure to contribute to Himalayan geology."

A.D. Ahluwalia, a geologist who also teaches at Punjab University, says "most of the doubts expressed by Talent are well-founded". He writes, "Allegations of recycling of fossil specimens by assigning fictitious locality labels, or using foreign materials once housed in foreign museums to illustrate ´new discoveries´ from the Himalayas, are indeed serious and are being treated as such in Chandigarh."

S.B. Bhatia, another of Gupta´s colleagues at the Centre in Chandigarh, recounts having been misled by Gupta, who had passed on to him a sample of rocks said to be from Kurig which were clearly from the Devonian age, whereas Bhatia´s own field observation in Kurig had shown rock samples to be from the Permo-Carboniferous age. Bhatia agrees with Talent that paleontologists should have been quicker to voice their doubts about Gupta, but adds that it is "better to be late than never."

In another communication, Udai K. Bassi, of the Geological Survey of India, states categorically that it would be impossible to obtain Devonian fauna from Kurig as claimed by Gupta. Bassi states that the register at the border post does not record Gupta´s party passing through Khimokul La as claimed, nor did the local people remember Gupta having visited the valley. He concludes by saying, "I regret having published three paleontology papers with Gupta."

Philippe Janvier, of the Institut de Paleontologie of the Museum National d´Histoire Naturelle in Paris, says 90 percent of the published paleontological data is based on trust of the field geologist who collects the fossils. Most scientists dared not even think that their colleagues might deceive them. "The reason why Professor Gupta could continue to travel around the world with his ´Himalayan´ fossils is that, until the appearance of Talent´s article, those who were really aware of problems in Himalayan stratigraphy and tectonics never expressed their doubts in print, and in an unambiguous way."

Geologists Come of Age

Nepal´s one hundred plus geologists have long felt isolated and ignored. Tectonically speaking, Himalayan rock formations do not allow large-scale commercial mining, so the scope for geologists to make their mark, is quite limited. The theories of mountain formation have remained the exclusive spheres of Western scientists, and research into "pure" science is hampered by lack of funds. Those who build roads, canals and bridges have not yet fully appreciated the use of the "rock scientist".

Against this bleak backdrop, for the first time in late August, the Nepal Geological Society held a seminar on the geology of Nepal Himalaya. Unlike the tepid response to most seminars in town, this one saw enthusiastic participation. The quality of papers on subjects such as the August 1988 earthquake, mining, and the formation of the Himalaya was said to be high. "We felt that we had finally arrived," said one organiser of the conference.

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