A work in progress

Published: Tuesday 15 December 2009

DownToEarth WE need to conduct more studies to understand if Himalayan glaciers are melting at a faster rate. And if they do retreat at a faster rate, we probably need even more studies to find out if global warming is the cause (see Glacial melt? Need more studies). That in essence was what environment minister Jairam Ramesh said to manage the uproar he created last month by releasing a scientific report sponsored by the environment ministry. The reports foreword, written by the minister, rubbished the link between glacial retreat and global warming.

Though the ministry presented the report with the usual media hype, we do not know what causes the Himalayan glacier retreat and fragmentation that was observed and reported by the ministry of science and technology and never published. It is most likely, we will never know that from Indian scientists.

Climate change is not a single phenomenon that can be linked, as one on one relationship, with any other change observed in the nature. Ecology is a large matrix and relationships are often too complex. This offers unique opportunity to the climate deniers to push their point. A similar resistance is observed about the fast erosion of small islands in the Bay of Bengal delta linked with the rising sea level.

Rameshs plea not to politicize Himalayan glaciers cannot be seen as innocent; their retreat, linked to global warming, is too important for the politics of international negotiation on climate change. If disproved, millions in the Indo-Gangetic plains will never be able to claim any adaptation fund related to climate change impact in the region. Science does not operate outside the political system.

Nothing was found
In the same vein, nothing was ever found in Bhopals water or soil. Numerous studies on possible contamination of Bhopals groundwater always found it to be safe. It now emerges, all these studies actually forced the poor population around the plant to drink highly contaminated water (see Bhopal's dirty secret).

Elementary. In a laboratory study, you always find what you are looking for. Nothing was found because nobody looked for the right contaminants. [Or, was it that a lot of contamination was found and never made public?]

The truth is that all the states energy was spent in shadow-boxing with then Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson or shielding the culprits. The continuing disaster, uncovered by the cse lab, was never looked at. What cse found has nothing to do with the gas leak 25 years ago. It is about a reckless chemical corporation and a state insensitive to its peoples wellbeing.

There is an attempt to proclaim the site as safe. It is understandable if land sharks are eyeing that prime land. But the larger danger in terming the place as benign is that it will let the culprit chemical giant deny its liability in cleaning up the toxic dumpyard it created.

Corporate world has learnt a lot from Bhopal. The private nuclear power industry in the rich world, eager to open shops in India, wants to limit liability to a mere US $450 million in case of an accident. They do not want a repeat of the Bhopal legal tangle. But the state is too eager to let them off the hook.

It is becoming difficult to prove effects of chemicals on health. State and industry deny either the contamination or the relationship between toxins and health effects. Like the glacier, health and toxins in the environment are also complex matrices. Victims never get compensated because more studies are always needed for conclusive proof. And companies are never held liable.

Chemistry of democracy
It does not take much for the environment minister to stand at Bhopals ground zero and issue a certificate of safety to the site. Unlike the Himalayan glacier, he does not even ask for more studies. Thousands of chemicals are introduced into the environment without more studies, only consideration being their business applications. But scientists are always ambiguous about their effects on the human population.

Agreed, there is nothing called the full truth. But we need to put whatever we know in the public domain. That leads to a public discourse that may help discover the truth.

But that is not to be. Our men will always be at work. And only convenient truth, with business possibilities, will see the light of industry.

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