Science is a political orphan

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Thursday 11 June 2015

There is no dearth of scientific knowledge in our country, but it does not get built into our daily lives

Disasters come and go, they are just temporary in nature, but our governance has become a permanent disaster.

India is a country blessed with one natural disaster after another. If it is not an earthquake, it is a flood or a drought or a cyclone. In 1999, it was the super cyclone in Orissa. And this year, in 2001, Saurashtra and large parts of the country, are reeling under a severe drought apart from the earthquake in Bhuj. What turns these temporary and highly preventable disasters into massive calamities is the perpetual disaster that this country's governance system has come to represent.

Earthquakes do not kill, it is buildings which do so. Why can not we build earthquake-resistant buildings? There is nothing new about this science. In fact, long before modern structural engineers came in to the picture, people living in the seismic regions of the country had understood this science. The Himalayan region of former Uttar Pradesh, now known as Uttaranchal, is an intensely seismic region. People here have long built houses which can withstand the tremors of the bhudevi rolling over. If we know all this why does the proud, loudmouth, supposedly competent, modern India fail to build this simple knowledge in to its daily reality? In our modern lives, the state as everywhere, has taken over a large part of our daily space but it is proving extremely incompetent to manage it. Earlier people would build their own houses and take local ecological and geological conditions in to account. But now buildings are made by contractors and builders and therefore someone must step in to regulate this activity. This is not happening because the government's ability to regulate is next to nothing. This country does not need a Crisis Management Group. It needs a Governance Crisis Management Group.

This issue of Down to Earth brings stories of two disasters. One, an act of omission leading to tens of thousands dead in Bhuj -- a story now painfully known to every Indian. Another an act of commission, leading to dozens crippled and mentally retarded for life. One in the north of India, another in the south.

A Kerala government corporation undertakes aerial spraying of a deadly pesticide for years. People die of cancer. Mentally retarded children are born. And yet all that the district magistrate can tell Star News is that he is following the rules and cannot stop the spraying. Just what rules is he taking about?

In Bhuj, the earthquake is an act of God, but the scale of death is definitely not. It is purely a human-made, in fact, a government-made disaster. Every scientist knows that the Himalayan range and the associated north Indian plains are highly seismic. The Himalaya is in fact of the most seismic mountain range in the world. It has witnessed some of the largest earthquakes ever recorded -- beginning with a 8.7 on Richter scale earthquake in Shillong in 1897, an 8.01 in Kangra in 1905 and then the biggest ever, one of 8.5 in Assam in 1950. Scientists predict that the Uttarakhand region, just about 300 km from Delhi, can expect a major one, even bigger than the one in Bhuj, as there has been no release of the geological pressure building up in the region for a long time. Such an earthquake has the potential to flatten Delhi. All this has been stated ad nauseum in the debate on the Tehri Dam . Did the government wake up to ensure that no building is built in Delhi which is not earthquake-resistant?

Regulation and disaster management is the job of the government. Since there is no dearth of scientific knowledge, why doesn't it get into our daily lives? A key reason is technical incompetence. Government agencies are run by generalist administrators from the Indian Administrative Service who have no ability themselves to integrate scientific and technical competence into their decision-making. But they rule the roost in a way that technically qualified and experienced people cannot take over even in a state of disaster. The result is that every disaster is dealt with by inexperienced and technically incompetent administrators.

How does this happen ? Very simple. When one cyclone hits a Tamil Nadu district, it is a new collector who deals with the crisis. Five years later, when another cyclone hits the Tamil Nadu coast again, there is yet another new collector at the helm. Therefore, every disaster, howsoever old it may be in its nature, is a new disaster for the government machinery.

It is here that the experts must take over. Experts must first inform the government about the steps needed to prevent disasters but when a disaster does take place they must take control. Unfortunately,no bureaucrat, even in a disaster, will hand over control. The result is that the technical services also remain very poor and disheartened. They will rarely ever question the powers that be. As a result, over time, expertise has just disappeared from the corridors of power. There is, of course, no reason to believe that qualified people will also deliver if they have to work in the kind of culture that prevails in the government today -- where personal development and commitment are of no concern for career advancement. Not surprisingly, the Indian government has come to acquire this extraordinary capacity of taking the best of the best human material, which is what most of the members of the ias are, but turning them fast into cabbages.

There is no public pressure on the politicians either to deliver. One so-called natural disaster takes place after another but nothing changes. Add to this heady cocktail the curse of corruption and the arrogance that marks the administration -- the pad kamad (the intoxication of power), as one Alwar villager told me recently -- and we have a perpetual disaster on our hands.

Let us also look at the way our government handles its scientific research. There is so much bombast about India's prowess in science -- from its ability to make bombs and missiles, to its churning out of millions of science graduates every year. And yet there is no evidence of scientific and technical competence in this country especially in those areas which affect the lives the people. Whether we look at water supply, urban air quality, dryland agriculture, wildlife or forest management, health services, management of hazardous wastes, control on the misuse of pesticides, or control on food or fuel adulteration, things that affect the daily lives of people and where science can play an important role in our lives, government agencies have shown no capacity to integrate opportunities offered by science into their management and decision-making systems.

Officials of the Central Public Works Department have already stated that local bodies like urban development authorities and municipalities do not have structural engineers who have the expertise to enforce earthquake resistance norms. The Supreme Court order to convert all buses to cng in Delhi, which has thrown both the central and state government into a tizzy, is yet another example of the total lack of the bureaucracy's ability to deal with things technical. Our scientific leaders talk about sending an Indian to the moon to prove India's scientific prowess to the world, but there is no effort to prove their scientific prowess to Indians themselves. My own experience has repeatedly shown to me that the scientific capacities of agencies like irrigation departments, environment departments, pollution control boards or urban development authorities is absolutely appalling.

Even our scientific research in areas of importance to our lives is next to nothing. Few people ever take a look at where India spends its research money. The picture is truly revealing of the nature of the Indian state. In 1996-97 as much as 64.1 per cent of the total r & d investment went to just three departments which are mainly related to national security, namely, the Defence Research and Development Organisation, Department of Space and Department of Atomic Energy. Add another 9.3 per cent for science for industrial development, namely, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. Thus, nearly three-quarters of our research money went into areas that mean nothing for the common people.

Believe it or not, the Indian Council of Medical Research which is supposed to find answers to our myriad health problems, gets a mere 1.1 per cent, less than the Department of Biotechnology and equal to the Department of Ocean Development. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research which is expected to ensure our food security and also bring improved livelihoods to millions of desperately poor farmers who live in dry and degraded lands gets an abysmal 9.7 per cent.

Given these priorities, it is not surprising that all the scientific heroes created by India's establishment are nuclear or rocket scientists -- from Homi Bhabha, H N Sethna and Raja Ramanna to Abdul Kalam. Every chairman of the Space and Atomic Energy Commissions has received a Padma Bhushan or a Padma Vibhushan. Kalam is even a Bharat Ratna. Not that these people have not contributed to the development of this country but the crux of the matter is that with the sole exception of M S Swaminathan, there is no hero who comes from the non-defence field.

As a result, those scientists and engineers who work in areas that affect our daily lives remain unknown and unimportant for the decision-making system. They remain political orphans. Their own pusillanimity in keeping quiet on scientific issues, that affect our lives, makes the situation even more deplorable. In every modern Western nation scientific issues are publicly debated, which leads to public pressure on policy systems to deliver. But not in India where scientists have taken silence to be their best insurance. Leaving, of course, thousands to die. It is hard to think today of any country's government that is so incapable of dealing with its own realities, unless of course we include the now defunct Soviet Union.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee told the Indian Science Congress that he would like to see India become a knowledge superpower. Somebody should tell him that knowledge is a commodity. It gets produced only when there is a demand for it. The government is the biggest institution in the country but it has no demand for knowledge. In such a mess, all that it can create are islands of competence, which can make earthquake-resistant nuclear power stations, atomic bombs or missiles, but not a society or a system of governance that is full of technical competence.

This lack of technical competence in the government will greatly bedevil the country in the 21st century not just in dealing with disasters but also with its everyday problems. Modern societies are becoming more and more science-intensive. Technological change in the 21st century is going to be driven by highly sophisticated sciences like life sciences and information technology and by environmental imperatives. This will require not only a technological vision but also considerable technical competence to regulate and protect public interest. If we do not change our governance system, we will only end up shedding crocodile tears after every disaster -- whether it is an earthquake or aerial spraying of poisons.

-- Anil Agarwal

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