Experiments with established truth

By Sunita Narain
Published: Friday 30 April 2004

Last fortnight, Down To Earth reported on the 'endosulfan scam'. On how an "expert" group, set up by the government to review safety concerns related to the pesticide and the health impacts on people living in the shadow of 20 years of incessant aerial spraying, had given the matter short shrift. How their report dismissed the scientific evidence linking the use of endosulfan in these plantations and the health problems reported from the villages.

We did not just explain what government experts believed was the scientific truth. We especially explained how science was murdered to manufacture a truth, falsely and fraudulently. How the report of the independent laboratory, which collected samples of human blood, soil and leaves, was tinkered with to suppress what was detected. And what was reported was not the truth. What we learnt left us appalled. We are sure our readers were similarly disturbed. They will understand that this issue is not about abstruse scientific theory. It is an issue which concerns voiceless and suffering people. Therefore, this particular experiment with truth cannot and must not be ignored.

As far as the suffering people of Padre are concerned, the implications of the expert committee, headed by agricultural scientist O P Dubey, do not need any elaboration. The report, which bends backwards to exonerate the pesticide (and hence its manufacturers), effectively ends up denying people justice or compensation for the horrendous mutations and deadly diseases they live and die with. But the damage does not end there.

We must understand that the Dubey report could irreparably destroy the credibility of our scientific institutions. More importantly, it will destroy the integrity of scientists who speak out in the public interest. This is not merely some skirmish over the details of a government institution's report. It is a battle that will determine the idea of India.

Why do I say this?

Firstly, we must understand that this is a battle of how intensely scientific debates are fought in the public sphere. The proponents of the pesticide-is-safe theory found it easy to debunk evidence because it was easy to debunk science. So, when scientists at the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH) found residues of alpha endosulfan in samples of children's blood they tested, it was said it could not be so. Why? Because as per 'known' and 'established' science, endosulfan is known to degrade in the environment. Therefore, science says that these residues should not have been found. Furthermore, the same science also says that the pesticide disintegrates and turns into endosulfan sulfate. So, if the laboratory analysis found the alpha isomer in the blood, the analysis is wrong. It cannot be.

So what if the laboratory that the proponents commissioned for an independent test also found alpha endosulfan residues in human blood, and in the soil and leaves? Any report can be 'fixed', isn't it? In this case, the alpha residues are simply erased and never reported publicly. Again, established science is validated. Endosulphan's proponents are vindicated. Most importantly, this report is private. But the report is powerful.

Similarly, when the Centre for Science and Environment laboratory found malathion in the samples of soft drinks it tested, it was said that malathion degrades fast, its half life is small, it cannot be found. If you found it, your test is wrong. So what if other laboratories conducting similar tests also found it? It simply cannot be!

And so continues what I call the dialogues of the deaf. On the side of private interests is 'established' science, which is well considered and easy to accept. On the side of the defenders of public science is knowledge, which is challenged and contested. In a country, largely scientifically illiterate in terms of public discourse and policy, how will this battle of unequals be ever won?

Secondly, this battle is about defending the right against the wrong. Remember, in this case the institution defending the public interest, NIOH, is not a ragtag non-governmental organisation. It is a respected and established government institution. But its findings went against the 'established' and 'manufactured' truth. Therefore, it had to be proved wrong: its methodology discredited, its findings disputed and its scientists sneered upon. As it is, scientists usually find it easy to draw comfort from the closed-in silence of their work-spaces. Their silence is their acquiescence. In this rare case, the scientist defended public and deserves public support. Because if this report takes another victim, the next defender of public interests will find it even more difficult to stand up and be counted.

Thirdly, it is a battle about the public sphere itself. Under current law, only a Central government institution can decide on banning a particular pesticide. Its committees decide in the public interest. Their decisions are binding. But they are not public or open to scrutiny. The Dubey committee, with two industry representatives -- with direct interests in the trade -- was accountable to another closed-door committee. All in all, a process shrouded in technical legitimacy. Compare this to the case of the soft drink fracas where another institution, considered much less credible in public gaze but much more open and hence accountable, decided on an equally intensely scientific question. The committee of parliamentarians may have been much less equipped to decide on the science, but it proved much more capable of defending public interests.

'Established' science vs public interest: is this then the way ahead? These experiments are about all of us. Remember, it is about nothing less than establishing the truth.

-- Sunita Narain

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