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Science in our daily lives

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Wednesday 29 July 2015 | 07:02:12 AM

Over a year ago, Anil Agarwal wrote in this column that science is a political orphan. He was discussing how even as we remain bombastic about our prowess in science, there is so little science in those areas which affect our daily lives. Indeed, there is little to show that the opportunities offered by science and technology have been integrated into the management and decision-making systems of government.

How true. But also, as one gets into the details of how things work, or do not work, you realise that there is a method behind the madness. It is not that we lack scientific competence and knowledge, but that it is "intelligent" to keep matters like this. Why? Because, with technical knowledge would come greater ability to enforce regulations. And who needs this? Thus, this is not just accidental incompetence, but planned and perfectly executed incompetence.

Take pollution control for instance. Whether they like it or not, governments across the country are being forced to take action against the toxic fumes of vehicles. So what do they do? They are told by their officials and the automobile industry that it is important to check the tail-pipe of each and every vehicle for pollution. Industry, in fact, has presented a real gizmo plan to introduce computerised testing, so that not only is the test data without "human interference" but the number plate of each and every vehicle is shot on camera to ensure that a vehicle does come to the testing centre. A real breakthrough in regulations, one would have thought.

Now look at the reality. It is indeed important to test emissions of vehicles on road. Worse, the bulk of our vehicles are old and polluting. Even in Delhi, where Euro II equivalent norms were introduced in 2000 -- before any other city in the country -- over 80 per cent of vehicles do not meet any emission norms. Furthermore, all vehicles deteriorate with time and across the industrialised world, there is a strict annual inspection system to check for fitness and emissions. So then, what is wrong with government's pollution under control (puc) system with its modern computers and hidden cameras?

Firstly, it has not struck the government and its consultant-industry, that the tail-pipe emission norms were notified in 1990s based on the bis standards, which were set way back in 1970s. The emission checks will have some meaning if the norms are tightened and pollutants like hydrocarbons introduced for tests. Instead, today the vehicle is checked against emission norms that were set over three decades ago. It is no wonder that 90 per cent of the vehicles pass the tests, computer or not.

Therefore, in our country, which boasts of such fancy science, which can take men to the moon, we cannot get the basic scientific task of standard setting done. It is rumoured that the Central Pollution Control Board suggested the in-use emission standards for hydrocarbons many years ago, but the file is stuck in the surface transport ministry. I am not surprised because this ministry should have been renamed the ministry of the society of automobile manufacturers. The same is the case with standards for petrol or diesel. The specified range is so wide that when we adulterated diesel with 20 per cent kerosene and sent it for testing, it was passed by the laboratory as 'unadulterated'. One more feather in the cap of our scientists.

Then, of course, norm or no norm, we have little technical ability to be able to enforce these regulations. The only technical ability we have is to be able to fiddle to bypass regulations. Under the grand design, the puc centres remain decentralised workshops where it is easy to tamper with and difficult to ensure compliance. And instrumentation is done to "manage" the system.

In the mid 1990s, the World Bank gifted three state of the art dynamometers -- equipment to check fitness and emissions of vehicles -- to Delhi, Goa and Hyderabad. These expensive instruments -- each costing roughly Rs 4 crore -- were taken out of their boxes six years later in Delhi and Hyderabad and, according to knowledgeable sources, not even been opened in Goa. In Delhi the equipment has been invaded by rats and rust and all testing of heavy vehicles is done manually today. Human discretion allows for money making opportunities we are sure. Yet another instance of "intelligent" science.

Similarly, we have the best technical expertise working on norms for building buses. But as yet there is not one inspection centre in the country to ensure that these vehicles that transport thousands every day are inspected for safety, let alone emissions. The only answer we get is that government just does not have the technical capacity to be able to manage these instruments.

More worrying is the fact that government only sees one solution now. Hand over the management of regulatory institutions to private sector so that they can bring in technical know-how. The official line is that government workers do not work, but they cannot be fired and new workers cannot be hired. So, a new alignment of the stars is on the cards. Science and business will be the new consultants to government. Given the obvious conflict of interest, the less said the better about this arrangement.

Clearly technical capacity will remain reserved for laboratories. Maybe it was right to say that our scientific institutions were built not to glorify Indian science but to bury it. It is certainly buried in the morass of government today.

-- Sunita Narain

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