Mapped to appear small, insignificant

Written by YRK Reddy | Updated: Jun 25 2005, 05:30am hrs
Many Indians wonder why our country looks so small on the map. We erase the discomfort quickly by accepting the world map that we have grown up with. In it, Scandinavia, that is about a third of Indias size, occupies the same amount of space. Greenland, which is 0.8 million sq miles, appears equal to Africa, which is 11.6 million sq milesa distortion of about 1450%. Russia, that looks larger than the whole of Africa, is actually smaller by about 33%. While the Arctic region is prominent, the Antarctic region appears lost somewhere.

The maps that still adorn the walls of many government offices, the legislature, classrooms, boardrooms and airline offices have, traditionally, been propagating a Euro-centric view that has been accepted as truth by sheer force of habit. While the government would meticulously ensure specific stamping of any map showing tweaked borders with our neighbours as not truly representative, such caution is distinctly absent in the case of world maps.

It is certainly not easy to draw a two-dimensional map in a rectangular shape from what is, essentially, a three-dimensional object. Gerardus Mercator achieved this for his own purpose around 1538 AD. It was primarily to help sailors and merchants and to suit the European perspective. The maps he made had parallel lines to aid navigation by sea. Navigators are bothered by latitudes and longitudes and need to be able to use a compass and draw lines easily. He adopted the term atlas to describe a collection of maps. Mercatordespite his name, which means merchant or marketerdid not travel extensively, but developed interest in cartography and made his living by making maps of various European countries.

The Euro-centric Mercator projections distort the sizes so drastically that the Northern hemisphere, which occupies two-thirds of the map, actually has half the landmass of the Southern hemisphere. The equator is normally shown 60% or more down the map, thus reducing the size and, consequently, the importance of the developing countries.

Mercators maps distort sizes, reducing the importance of developing countries
Dr Arno Peters made an accurate map and declared Mercators map racist
There have been, indeed, several attempts to rectify this problem. But the bias has been so strong that there is little progress. Amongst the more prominent efforts for making an equal size projection was that of Dr Arno Peters. Peters, a historian and cartographer, released his area- accurate map in 1974, at a press conference in Germany. The English version was made available in 1983. It gave a great new perspective. It also made better sense when used for depicting economic conditions and social and environmental problems in combination with accurate geographical area.

Understandably, it cau-sed a major political storm, with deeply divided sets of passionate followers and detractors. The latter appear to have prevailed, despite sympathetic inclinations from the UN and religious groups. As Hodgson points out Westerners understandably cling to a projection which so markedly flatters them (Rethinking World History, 1993). On the other hand, several cartographers believe that the Peters Projection is a marketing gimmick and a scam, capitalising on the cartographic ignorance of peoplethough none question its usefulness.

Arno Peters, in a speech to the UN, declared that the Mercator projection was racist. It must be, if all the countries in the South are officially made to look much smaller than they actually are. The principle of equality cannot be upheld with wrong measures, maps and instruments. There have been several research studies which have also speculated on the probable impact of Mercator maps on perceptions, beliefs and behaviour. (It may have had some adverse impact on West-erners as wellone light-hearted comment from the West was that the Mercator maps may have lulled them into being consumptive and presumptuous).

A world map that is patently wrong and makes India look so inconsequential should have been replaced with the likes of the Peters Projection, despite their other deficiencies. A map that helped European navigators and conquerors, rather than one that would promote equality, should have been officially discarded, except for navigational purposes. It is about time India made an official world map of its own and marked the rest with the warning: Beware of distorted sizes.