Missing the point

Print edition : November 28, 2014

The environmental activist Sunder l L al Bahuguna a , environmental activis t, at his new house at Koti, Tehri, in Uttara khand nchal . A file photograph. Opinion on the Tehri hydroelectric project was div id ed among the residents of the town. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

A protest outside the Maharashtra Sadan in New Delhi against the Jaitapur n N ucle a r power plant. A file photograph. T he environmental conflicts relating to the Kudankulam and Jaitapur nuclear plants a re persisting because the group of experts tasked to take the decisions is a techno-scientific one. Photo: BLOOMBERG NEWS

The book fails to demonstrate the tools for risk assessment that are broad-based enough to accommodate multiple specialisations and concerns.

IN 1991, when I stepped into the steeply sloping valley downstream of the Bhagirathi in Old Tehri town, where the Tehri hydroelectric project was to come up years later, it was with awe and fear that I looked at the fast-flowing river in the ravine—awe at the strength of the human mind that decided to construct a dam at the treacherous site and fear about what would happen downstream should the dam breach and a wall of water rush into the plains.

The dispute surrounding the construction of the dam was at its height. Not far from the proposed dam site, the environmental activist Sunderlal Bahuguna was on a hunger strike. Opinion on the project was divided among the residents of the town. While some saw the dam as a boon for the underdeveloped Garhwal region, environmentally conscious people felt that it signified a grave risk not only for the valley but also for the Ganga flowing into the plains.

The Tehri project involved the construction of a 260-metre-high dam in Tehri Garhwal district of present-day Uttarakhand. Its benefits, as claimed by its proponents, were 1,000 megawatts of electricity and water for irrigation. It had a serious risk since it was planned in a seismically active region of the Himalayas, prone to earthquakes of a magnitude greater than 8 on the Richter Scale. The project’s opponents pointed out that such a seismic event would affect the integrity of the dam structure.

The fact that the Tehri project has been completed, despite these protests, indicates that the arguments of its proponents that the risks had been considered and safeguards had been built in was accepted by the judiciary and the Central and State governments. However, fears of floods in the event of a breach have not been assuaged. When floods devastated Uttarkashi in June 2013, these fears came back to haunt the people of Garhwal. The dam authorities had to work overtime to allay their fears.

It was in the case of the Tehri dam project that the Indian environmental movement, for the first time, had a broad-based discussion on the issue of risk. Until then, risk was discussed only with regard to the establishment of nuclear power plants, and these discussions were confined to small pockets. Although the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984 raised the issue of risk of industrial accidents not just in India but the world over, the discussions were after the event.

India’s Risks: Democratizing the Management of Threats to Environment, Health, and Values looks at the issue of risk while deciding on development projects. Questions such as what constitutes risk, what constitutes acceptable risk for development, and who takes decisions on these have until now been discussed in two watertight compartments. On the side of the project proponents, these questions have been discussed in closed techno-scientific circles. Environmental activists and project opponents discuss the same questions in another closed circle. Typically, project proponents underplay the risk and its opponents overplay it.

“What are the options in front of India?” asks Frederic Bouder, in his chapter differentiating hazard- and risk-based decision-making. “Can rapid economic development continue whilst ensuring that this process is combined with risk reduction? Will laudable efforts to reduce fatalities put economic and technological development at risk and burden industry with cumbersome and inefficient red tape? Is risk management manageable or is it a ‘luxury’ that India cannot yet afford?”

Although clichéd, these are the questions that return ad nauseam every time a development project raises the possibility of risk to safety, health and the environment. Hazard-based approaches, according to Bouder, are based on the avoidance of something deemed inherently unsafe, which is equivalent to taking a strong precautionary stance. Risk-based approaches, on the other hand, imply that society agrees to tolerate certain risks, with the confidence that it is being controlled, to secure certain benefits.

Risk-based approaches are not problem-free, he argues. With a strong focus on probability and magnitude of harm, they tend to neglect equity issues in terms of time (future generations), space (not in my backyard) and marginal social groups. It is the third limitation that comes into play in most of India’s environmental disputes.

This limitation is almost always enhanced by the fact that the decisions on risk are taken by technical groups constituted by the government, which mostly ignore the concerns of the communities that would be affected. “Crucial policy decisions are left in the hands of technical experts and their scientific and technical solutions are privileged over those put forward by communities or social scientists,” state the book’s editors, Raphaelle Moor and M.V. Rajeev Gowda.

The authors cite the example of two sets of environmental conflicts that are persisting because the group of experts tasked to take the decisions is a techno-scientific one. These environmental conflicts relate to the Kudankulam and Jaitapur nuclear power plants in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra respectively, and genetically modified food crops, especially GM brinjal.

K.V. Ramana writes lucidly about the “absurd confidence” of the Indian nuclear establishment. He recalls that when countries such as Germany, Italy and Japan rethought their reliance on nuclear power after the Fukushima accident, the Secretary of the Indian Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) claimed that Indian reactors were “100 per cent safe”.

In another instance, the Reactor Safety Analysis Group of the DAE stated that in India there were no safety concerns arising out of tsunamis. But the December 2004 tsunami that hit the southern coasts presents a totally different picture.

Listing a series of small accidents that have taken place in India’s nuclear plants, Ramana states that the risk management practices suffer from a threefold weakness. Organisational leaders have not placed a high priority on safety in design; there has been inadequate learning from failures; and the relationship between the management and workers has not been healthy. Compounding this is the ineffective communication the DAE has with the community, adding to the lack of trust. People’s opposition to the Kudankulam and Jaitapur nuclear power plants is a reflection of this distrust.

In the case of GM brinjal, Erik Millstone writes in detail about the scientific inadequacies of the dossier that the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco) submitted to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) of the Government of India. The GEAC had cleared GM brinjal, with the gene for insecticidal quality from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), for commercial release in October 2009 on the basis of this dossier.

Before endorsing the GEAC’s recommendations, the Ministry of Environment and Forests published the committee’s report, inviting comments. “The dossier was scrutinised, analysed and critiqued by several authoritative and influential scholars,” Millstone states. Quoting those who scrutinised the Mahyco dossier, he says that it looked only at the health and environmental consequences, and not the economic and social consequences of commercialising Bt brinjal. The chronic toxicity tests were not enough; the chemical analytical data to establish substantial equivalence to non-GM brinjal counterparts were inadequate; and the digestibility test was conducted with laboratory equipment rather than on animals or humans. For the allergnicity test, the sample size was not big enough and the test was not carried for a period that was long enough.

On the basis of these criticisms, the then Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, refused to accept the GEAC’s recommendations for commercialising Bt brinjal. However, the Ministry refused to learn its lessons, since the draft Biodiversity Authority Regulatory Authority of India Bill, 2011, was “drafted in a way that suggests either that no lessons whatsoever had been learnt from the Bt brinjal or that too many cynical lessons have been internalised by the authorities”, comments Millstone.

In addition to environmental disputes relating to nuclear power and GM crops, India’s Risks also talks about learning from disasters, and public health risks such as those relating to the human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) and H1N1. The authors argue for greater democratisation of the risk-assessment process. This means the involvement of social scientists and the community in the assessment process and the inclusion of local and contextual knowledge in the expert knowledge base.

Books take time to be written and published. The chapters in this book were written during the rule of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). The book was published, or came into the public domain, after the government at the Centre changed. In the months since the new government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was formed in May, many of the issues that the book talks about have come out in greater contrast. There is greater thrust on fast-tracking project clearances, and as such less importance is given to risk assessment.

The only way the proponents and opponents of projects can come to an understanding on risks and trade-offs is if they use a common set of tools for assessment. Until that happens, the proponents will have an interest in neglecting the risk and the opponents will tend to exaggerate it.

India’s Risks had the opportunity to demonstrate such tools for risk assessment, which are broad-based enough to accommodate multiple specialisations and concerns. But the only chapter that deals with this is the last one, authored by Fredric Bouder. This is where the book fails to take the discussion on risk to the next level.

S. Gopikrishna Warrier is Regional Environment Manager with Panos South Asia. The views expressed are personal.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor