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China–IndiaPathways of Economic and Social Development$

Delia Davin and Barbara Harriss-White

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780197265673

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: January 2015

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197265673.001.0001

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Environment and Development in India

Environment and Development in India

(p.193) 10 Environment and Development in India

S. Ravi Rajan

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

The purpose of this chapter is to explore some of the key debates about India’s environment and development. It begins by summarising some of the country’s key sustainability indicators. It then examines the natural resource management sector, focusing on forestry and irrigation. Finally, it explores the threats posed by environmental risks of technological origin – by considering five high profile cases – the Bhopal Gas Disaster of 1984; the controversy over Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs); the seismicity concerns of the TEHRI dam; the handling of pollution and transportation policy in New Delhi; and the debate on nuclear safety.

Keywords:   India, environment, development, human rights, governance, expertise, risk, disasters, Bhopal

THE PURPOSE OF THIS CHAPTER is to explore some of the key debates about environment and development in India. It begins by summarizing some of the country’s key sustainability indicators. It then examines the natural resource management sector, focusing on forestry and irrigation. Finally, it explores the threats posed by environmental risks of technological origin—by considering five high-profile cases—the Bhopal gas disaster of 1984; the controversy over genetically modified organisms (GMOs); the seismicity concerns of the Tehri Dam; the handling of pollution and transportation policy in New Delhi; and the debate on nuclear safety.


The environmental debate in India has, since independence, grappled with big questions, such as the relationship between the environment and human rights; the teleology of development; and the role of the environment in governance. The purpose of this chapter is to explore the two sectors—natural resource management and environmental risks—that have dominated the debate. After a brief context-setting section that defines some of the key trends pertaining to the country’s ecological footprint, the chapter examines the natural resource management sector. The focus here is on forestry and irrigation, and the approach that of a historical overview, because many of the current conflicts and controversies are legacies of the colonial period. The rest of the chapter is devoted to some of the critical issues relating to technological risks, and adopts a case study approach, using iconic cases to illustrate particular issues. The cases are: a) the Bhopal gas disaster of 1984; b) the controversy over genetically modified organisms (GMOs); c) the seismicity concerns of the Tehri Dam; d) the handling of pollution and transportation policy in New Delhi; and e) the debate on nuclear safety.

(p.194) The background

Despite being largely ignored in mainstream Indian economic and political discourse, the environment today poses one of the most potent threats to development and human well-being. The numbers and trends are clear and daunting. Consider the statistics on sustainability. Although the Indian economy, as well as its industrial sector, has grown at a lesser rate than China, and although its ecological footprint is less than that of its northern neighbour, it ranks third, after China and the USA, in its total demand on natural resources (CII, 2008). According to the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Global Footprint Network, ‘India represents approximately 6 per cent of the world’s Ecological Footprint, 4 per cent of the world’s biocapacity, and 17 per cent of the world’s population’ (CII, 2008). Moreover, the country’s ostensibly low ecological footprint—India ranks 125th among 152 countries—is explicable by the fact that its population has doubled since 1961. With the country’s headcount expected to be 1.7 billion by 2050, it does not take a diehard Malthusian to be concerned about the consequences of the fact that the country’s domestic supply of life-sustaining resources is simply not adequate to meet the basic needs of its people.

According to the Government of India’s own data, there are many other worrying trends (GOI, 2009). India faces a serious problem of species extinctions. It is a mega-diverse country, with 7–8 per cent of the recorded species of the world, and over 45,000 species of plants and 91,000 species of animals, in only 2.4 per cent of the planet’s land area. Yet, no less than 172, or 2.9 per cent, of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)—designated threatened species face extinction in India, with the numbers and percentages growing by the day. Further, erosion has other dark meanings. Approximately 130 million hectares of land, accounting for 45 per cent of the total geographical area, are afflicted with serious soil erosion. Erosion rates range from 5–20 tons per hectare, sometimes going up to 100 tons per hectare. Permanently degraded lands are growing at an annual rate of 6 million hectares. India also faces a severe and debilitating water supply crisis. If the assumption that the population will stabilize at around 1,640 million by the year 2050 is true, the country faces a significant gross per capita water availability decline—from 1,829 cubic metres per year in 2001 to as low as 1,140 cubic metres per year in 2050. Worse, estimates of total water availability by the year 2050 indicate that demand will be significantly less than projected potential supply (GOI, 2009).

The trends on pollution are equally damning. Per-hectare consumption of fertilisers has increased from 69.8 kilograms in 1991–92 to 113.3 kg in 2006–07, at an average rate of 3.3 per cent, with concomitant damage to the land because of overuse. Water sources across the country are increasingly (p.195) poisoned (GOI, 2009). Groundwater contamination, for example, poses a huge problem, with geogenic (soil) contaminants, including salinity, iron, fluoride, and arsenic, widespread in over 200 districts spread across 19 states. Moreover, virtually all India’s 14 major river systems are heavily polluted, on account of more than 50 million cubic metres of untreated sewage being discharged into them each year. Domestic waste by itself is a significant source of this pollution—the 22 largest cities produce over 7.267 million litres of domestic wastewater per day, of which almost 20 per cent is untreated. Nearly 15 per cent of the urban and 20 per cent of the rural population do not as yet have access to safe drinking water; and the numbers with access to adequate sanitation facilities is even lower. Air pollution presents a more positive trend, with fewer premature deaths in cities across the country as a result of the success of government measures. However, the estimated annual economic cost of damage to public health from increased air pollution, for 50 cities with a total population of 110 million, reached US $3 billion in 2004 (GOI, 2009).

The unfolding reality of climate change presents a spectre of future shocks. Here are some long-term scenarios generated by the Ministry of Environment and Forests of the Government of India (GOI, 2009):

  1. 1. By the 2050s, India will experience a decline in summer rainfall, which accounts for almost 70 per cent of the total annual rainfall and is crucial to agriculture.

  2. 2. Some of the glaciers in the Himalayas are receding at an average rate of 10–15 metres per year. Himalayan glaciers could disappear within 50 years because of climate change, exposing an estimated 500 million people to the threat of a severe water scarcity.

  3. 3. Food production in India is still considerably dependent on rainfall. However, its quantity and distribution are highly variable, spatially and temporally. In the past 50 years, there have been about 15 major droughts, which adversely affected the productivity of rain-fed crops in drought years. There are few, if any, options of alternative livelihoods, and for millions of small and marginal farmers in the rain-fed agricultural region widespread poverty is both real and threatening.

  4. 4. Shifts in forest boundaries, changes in species assemblages or forest types, and changes in net primary productivity are possible, as is loss or change in biodiversity. Enhanced levels of CO2 are projected to alter the primary productivity of ecosystems in more than 75 per cent of the forest area. About 70 per cent of the vegetation in India is likely to find itself less than optimally adapted to its existing location, some in a span as short as the next 50 years. About 15−40 per cent of species will face extinction, even if the warming amounts to barely 2°C above pre-industrial levels; and the most threatened flood plains in the world will be in South Asia.

  5. (p.196) 5. Climate change could potentially engender a rise in sea level. An increase of 1 metre in sea level is projected to displace approximately 7.1 million people in India, and destroy about 5,764 square kilometres of land and 4,200 kilometres of roads.

  6. 6. Current government expenditure on adaptation to climate variability is already estimated to exceed 2 per cent of the GDP, with agriculture, water resources, health and sanitation, forests, coastal zone infrastructure, and extreme weather events being specific areas of concern.

As with virtually every other sector in India, environmental statistics and trends serve to indicate bigger and more fundamental problems. The lowest common denominator in environmental governance in India is, to adapt a phrase coined by Ernst Friedrich, the nineteenth-century German student of the expanding American frontier, raubwirtschaft, or the economy of plunder (Friedrich, 1904). Without doubt, the pillage of the Indian environment is a sad illustration of the kleptocratic tendencies in its economy and society, wherein opportunism and free enterprise in theft, and the capture of the state by self-serving interests at virtually every level—from a village headman to a large multinational corporation—is an unfortunate reality (Global Integrity, 2011). The fact that there is even a prospect of formulating and implementing public policy, and building institutions that run according to the rule of law, and are sensitive and accountable to the needs of the common Indian, is testimony to the untiring efforts of individuals, groups, and movements across the spectrum from the state to civil society (India Together, 2013).

The extent of corruption and the role of civil society in combating it, are subjects of chapters by other contributors to this volume. Rather than add an environmental dimension to these accounts, this chapter focuses on describing two of the most enduring of the many environmental problems in India. The first of these concerns the management of critical natural resources—forestry and irrigation. These two sectors have institutional origins and legacies that stem from the colonial era. They are examples of the fact that formal decolonization did not mark an end to what some scholars have described as environmental imperialism; and they also illustrate the tensions between nationalist development policies and the often divergent needs of citizens and subjects (Guha, 1988). They further serve to show how the most well-funded of government schemes can be hijacked to benefit a few. Moreover, they are examples of the persistence, in the post-colonial period, of colonial memes in agencies such as forestry, public works, and irrigation bureaucracies. Last but by no means least, they are also illustrative of the vibrancy of civil society, and the myriad attempts at forging alternatives in theory and practice.

Next, the chapter examines the issue of environmental risks of technological origin—a central issue as the Indian economy industrializes. (p.197) The problem of risk poses a number of fundamental questions relating to the capacity of the state to govern, and the efficacy of state expertise. Risk also raises questions about democracy; about how the state interacts with its citizens on basic decisions such as personal safety. Crucially, it also serves to explore how the state understands and calibrates the price of life of the average Indian, frames development choices, and chooses between competing priorities.

The state of nature

From the colonial period onward, governments in India have made significant investments in developing infrastructures to harness critical natural resources such as forests and water. However, the manner in which these investments were made engendered conflicts among various stakeholders, including industry, governments—from municipal to state and central (federal) levels—a wide range of community interests, and national and transnational environmentalists. Environmental politics in India has therefore been about conflicting resource-use priorities.

Given that the history of environmental conflicts dates back to the colonial period, it is instructive to start with a brief historical background. In the case of forestry, the British established a regime of forest management modelled on a system developed in Continental Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The aim of this regime was to serve the economic and infrastructural needs of the state. It therefore emphasized scientific management, but largely ignored the needs and, in many cases, abrogated the historic resource rights of local populations (Rajan, 2006). From the end of the nineteenth century, until well after independence, forest rights were redefined and landscapes transformed throughout the Indian subcontinent. Forest revenue yields rose and timber business elites developed, at the cost of livelihoods of local people denied rights to forest usufruct. Meanwhile, deforestation reduced topsoil quality, and changed water flow and local agroecologies (Gadgil, Prasad, and Ali, 1983).

Similarly, irrigation infrastructures such as canal building were established by the colonial state to increase agrarian productivity and widen the yield and reach of taxation. As a consequence of these investments, yields expanded, and, according to some estimates, per capita output of crops increased by nearly 45 per cent between 1891 and 1921 (Whitcombe, 2005). However, a vast authoritarian bureaucracy reaching down to village level used forced labour to maintain the canal network, and undertook ruthless water fee recovery on all lands deemed to be irrigated. It thereby encouraged farmers to grow cash crops to generate cash (Hardiman, 2002: 114), exacerbating economic inequities by privileging those who could afford the service payments—water rates for (p.198) the use of canals. It also engendered widespread corruption. Moreover, the system caused a number of ecological problems such as salinity, and many areas of Punjab, once known for its good, well-watered soils, are today saline deserts, with alkaline and unproductive lands. The system also neglected, and in some cases destroyed, traditional water systems where they did not serve the revenue needs of the colonial state (D’Souza, 2006).

The dynamics of these biosocial processes did not change much until the late 1960s. Ignited by concerns for social justice, the new political era included the hitherto ignored politically neutral topics such as the environment, and fundamental issues of human rights and constitutionality (Hardiman, 2004). In the case of forestry, the first wave of change came with the Chipko movement in the Himalayas. Chipko was part of a wider critical interrogation of the fundamentals of development. A spate of experimentation followed, including attempts to build new management hybrids involving both the state forest departments and local communities (Khare et al., 2000). In a similar vein, there were important studies about the economic viability of devolving forest management to local communities and firms (Somanathan, Prabhakar, and Mehta, 2009). Many scholars and practitioners also focused their attention on inclusiveness. An important result of this emphasis was a burgeoning literature on gender, and in particular on the morbid interface between deforestation, increasing female workload and labour, and decreasing access for girls and women to education, nutrition, and community (Agarwal, 1992, 1997a, 1997b, 2001). Moreover, considerable attention was paid to understanding biodiversity in landscape terms, and building regimes that would preserve biological diversity, while at the same time creating productive agro-ecosystems (Negi, 1996). The result of these efforts has not been revolutionary. However, the national understanding and discourse on forests has shifted. In many states with forest lands, budgetary allocations indicate newer policies that emphasize inclusiveness as well as ecological integrity. There has also been an emergence of research institutions studying forest issues at the national as well as state and regional levels.

In the case of irrigation, a major rethink of state policy began soon after independence, with waterworks being seen as public goods (Shah, 2010). Irrigation charges were drastically reduced, and significant public funds were expended on irrigation. More than 400 large dams were built, making India the third largest dam builder in the world, after the USA and China. However, despite a progressive policy agenda, significant problems began to emerge. First, the canal systems built under the colonial regime were poorly maintained, necessitating large investments periodically to rebuild them (Shah, 2010). Second, unlike forestry, where the resource was managed by one central agency, irrigation water often existed in private or communal lands, with the result that a ‘scavenging irrigation economy’ was born, with a (p.199) proliferation of wells (initially traditional and artisanal, but soon tubewells, riding on subsidized electricity) displacing traditional lakes, and, indeed, medium and major systems (Shah, 2010). Third, the rapid spread of tube-wells meant the depletion of groundwater—and severe threats to hydrological systems (Dubash, 2002; Shah, 2010). The threat is particularly severe in peninsular India, which receives barely 100 hours of rainfall a year. Compounding these problems is the huge human cost of large dams, which, according to some estimates, resulted in at least 40 million people being displaced during the past 60 years (and of whom less than a quarter have been resettled) (Anon., 2005).

As with the case of forestry, there is also a vibrant debate, scholarly work, and policy experimentation. National water policy has been debated continuously over the past 30 years, and has raised a wide swathe of issues. These range from integrated river-basin-level approaches, to water planning and management, to debates about the efficacy of community-level organizations, and the best ways to build hybrid systems that meet the needs of various stakeholders while preserving long-term supply. There has also been vibrant debate about equity and rights in access to water resources; democracy and participation; inter-state conflict management; groundwater regulation; and pollution, among a host of issues (Iyer, 2003).

The state of risk

Like much of the world today, national security frames the public discourse on risk in India. However, like the rest of the world, the statistics on mortality and morbidity indicate a growing trend correlating human catastrophes with environmental changes. Some events, such as the 1984 gas tragedy in Bhopal, take thousands of lives, and seemingly occur without warning. Other, more chronic problems, such as air and water pollution, fester, causing havoc for health and the environment over prolonged periods of time. For example, according to the World Health Organization’s Global Burden of Disease Report for 2010 (WHO, 2011), air pollution is the fifth leading cause of death in India, with 620,000 premature deaths in 2010, representing a sixfold increase since 2000 (CSE WHO, 2013). Yet other issues lurk in the background, dormant, waiting for a triggering event to vault them into headline news. They obviously include nuclear plants, which are slated to be a growing component of the energy sector. They also include large dams, which in some cases, such as when sited in seismic regions, threaten large populations; and emerging technologies, such as GMOs and nanotechnologies.

One productive way with which to analyse such trends has been offered by recent anthropological studies, which argue that hazardous agents or events (p.200) in themselves do not inevitably result in disasters. Rather, ‘a disaster becomes unavoidable in the context of a historically produced pattern of vulnerability’ (Oliver-Smith, 1996). This section explores some of the iconic events related to risk and disaster in India’s recent history by elaborating upon the histories of vulnerability that produced them. It begins with the Bhopal gas disaster. The gas spill continues, even three decades later, to be illustrative of how the Indian state and society at large value the life of an average Indian. It also serves as an example of the absence of expertise to govern complex environmental risks. Next, three events are explored that did not result in mass death and yet made significant news: a) the seismic risks posed by the Tehri Dam; b) the debate about how to mitigate vehicular air pollution in Delhi, leading to controversy over the adoption of compressed natural gas (CNG) in public transportation; and c) the continuing public controversy over GMOs. The reason for the choice of these three cases is that they serve well to understand the nature of environmental governance in India, especially in instances of scientific uncertainty about risk. Last, but by no means least, we look briefly at some of the issues underlying the nuclear safety debate.

The case of Bhopal

On the night of 2–3 December 1984, an explosion at gas tanks storing methyl isocyanate at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal immediately killed between 2,259 and 3,787 people, and maimed about half a million others and their progeny (M.P. Government; Varma and Varma, 2005). The Bhopal gas disaster, as this iconic event has since been known, raised a host of issues about contemporary India’s capacity to govern risks. This section will address two of these—political economy and accountability; and expertise and capacity.

By the time of the 1984 accident, Bhopal city had become a company town, with power and favour flowing from UCIL, the Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), which took many of the key design decisions that precipitated the event (Chouhan, 2004). The Indian subsidiary, perhaps with the knowledge of the parent company, put in place an operational culture characterized by chronic lax maintenance, a low number of supervisory employees, and inadequate safety training, with the result that the plant was constantly plagued by accidents and mishaps (Jones, n.d.;Chouhan, 2005). Crucially, the corporate response after the disaster, by both UCIL and UCC, was to look after its own economic interests rather than adopt a strategy of corporate citizenship. The company hired top public relations firms, lobbied governments, and embarked upon strong divestment strategies, culminating first in record profits and then in the sale of the company to Dow Chemicals. However, the victims were neither rehabilitated nor adequately compensated (p.201) (Rajan, 1999). The perpetrators of the world’s worst industrial accident got away with little penalty or consequence, while the victims received no favour or succour.

The Bhopal gas tragedy also raised a more fundamental question—of the capacity of the state to respond adequately to complex, multifaceted issues such as technological disasters. It has been widely reported that the Indian state, at both the central and state levels, failed to respond adequately (CSE, 1985). Elsewhere, I have argued at length that this inadequacy raises the broader problem of ‘missing expertise’ (Rajan, 2002). Three types of such absences can be identified. The first is ‘contingent expertise’—the capacity to respond immediately and effectively to a potential hazard, including warning systems, and communication and evacuation procedures. Clearly, by most accounts, the state largely failed to demonstrate much by way of contingent expertise at Bhopal. The second type of missing expertise, ‘conceptual expertise’, addresses the innovation needed to respond adequately to unfolding novel situations. Most disasters manifest as sudden, catastrophic events. Although devastating by nature, their period of intensity is short. Bhopal, however, soon became a chronic event, affecting a large community over months, years, and decades. Rehabilitation in Bhopal therefore demanded a wide range of expertise, over and beyond the contingent. The state government did not, however, possess this kind of expertise, and approached social and economic rehabilitation as if it were a natural disaster, not a chronic and complex process. As the months rolled into years, and thence to decades, all that the victims received was a series of transplanted developmental schemes and poverty alleviation programmes. The capacity to conceptually plan a longterm recovery programme was missing. Last, but by no means least, the third kind of missing expertise is ‘contextual’. This refers to the state’s ability to observe how their policies and schemes play out in real societal and cultural contexts, and troubleshoot on that basis. For example, in Bhopal, eligibility for rehabilitation required the certification of victims, for which certain sets of documents were needed but were not always present. The result was the emergence of a parallel economy of false documents and bribery. State officials were presented with a trade-off—of tolerating, and thereby participating in, this parallel economy, or creating simpler rules that risked freeriders at the expense of making life easier for the majority of the victims (Rajan, 2002). The state machinery did not have the ability or the expertise to recognize or respond to such tragic choices (Calabresi and Bobbitt, 1978).

The state of risk governance in contemporary India

Even while Bhopal remains an iconic case study in its inability to govern a growing infrastructure that produces toxic chemicals, many new challenges (p.202) concerning risk management have emerged. Crucial among them is the question of how to arbitrate between differing claims about risk, especially in contexts in which there is either inadequate conclusive scientific data or disagreement among experts, or indeed a political or institutional process that does not easily allow for such resolutions. The issues at stake can be understood by considering three cases. The first of these is that of the Tehri Dam—a massive multipurpose power project located in the state of Uttarakhand in India, the first phase of which was completed in 2006. Tehri is a component of a multipurpose river valley project, and the main dam at Tehri is the eighth tallest in the world. It is slated to generate 2,400 megawatts of electricity, besides irrigating 270,000 hectares of land, and supplying 270 million gallons of drinking water per year to industrialized cities in the surrounding states, including 500 cubic feet per second to the national capital, New Delhi. By mid-2006, when the dam was commissioned, more than US $1 billion had been spent on its construction. (Fink, 2000).

The Tehri Dam has been controversial for two broad reasons. First, like others, it submerged large areas of land and forced approximately 85,600 families to relocate against their will (Dogra, 1992). Second, it is sited in the Central Himalayan Seismic Gap, a major geologic fault zone, and barely 50 kilometres from the epicentre of a magnitude 6.8 earthquake in October 1991 (Brune, 1993). Third, the siltation rates used in calculating the long-term costs of the dam were disputed (Govardhan, 1993). Many stakeholders have been embroiled in these debates, ranging from the Indian central government to local NGOs (INTACH, 1987; Paranjpye, 1988; Bandyopadhyay, 1992). The result was that the authority of a sequence of expert committees, constituted by the central and state governments as well as courts, was questioned, and their scientific validity publicly disputed. The case in the Indian Supreme Court was therefore mired in controversy, and although the court ruled in favour of constructing the dam, the controversy was not closed by science, but furthered by it.

Another case illustrative of controversies over how to arbitrate between different claims of risk is that of the adoption of CNG in Delhi. Against the backdrop of rising vehicular air pollution, and the consequent public health epidemic, the Indian government constituted the Environmental Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority for the National Capital Region of India in 1998. This was a statutory authority, in that its directions were binding on public policy. One of its key recommendations was the conversion of public transport vehicles to CNG, a recommendation that the Supreme Court of India accepted on 28 July 1998. However, after a couple of years, this ruling was contested by another committee of experts appointed by the Government of India, which refused to endorse the single fuel principle, and instead advocated a more complex system involving multiple fuel mixes and (p.203) a range of other measures. A controversy soon erupted. However, despite the contradictions between the respective committees, the Supreme Court chose to endorse the first one, and in doing so questioned the motivations of the second. Notably, though, the Supreme Court cherrypicked and arbitrated between conflicting philosophical perspectives on the efficacy of particular technological interventions over others (Bell, Mathur, and Narain, 2004; Mathur and Narain, 2004; Mathur, 2005; Narain and Bell, 2006; Véron, 2006; Sahu, 2008; Gauri, 2009).

Yet another public controversy that has, among other things, raised questions about the institutional capacity within the Indian governing and regulatory apparatus to arbitrate amid scientific controversy concerns GMOs. The regulatory structure for GMOs adopted by the Government of India consists of: a) Rules (1989) under the Environment Protection Act (EPA) (1986) and b) the Seed Policy (2002). Together, they mandate a regulatory regime of safeguards that include prerelease testing following a US EPA precedent, and prescribe punitive action for any violation and noncompliance. Despite what appears, at first glance, to be a comprehensive regulatory structure, critics rejected governmental claims about environmental and health safety of GM crops and foods. They also raised a host of questions concerning biosafety, consequent to the import of GM foods into India. Further, they claimed that there was little transparency and participatory decision-making in the governance of GM technology in India. A particular focus in the Indian GM debate was Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton, which was formally released in 2002. The regulatory approval process for Bt cotton in India was highly contested, and the struggles were not just about science but encompassed values, world views, political economic gradients, and institutional processes and procedures. Critically, however, while many environmental activists stood opposed to Bt cotton, many farmers adopted it illicitly, thereby subverting the regulatory process and shortcircuiting public debate (Bharathan, 2000; Scoones, 2003, 2006; Lianchawii, 2005; Naik et al., 2005; Qaim et al., 2006; Raju, 2007; Gruère and Mehta-Bhatt, 2008; Laurie, 2008; Herring, 2009; Subramanian and Qaim, 2010).

Three conclusions can be drawn from the case studies described briefly above. First, the debate about the regulation of environmental risks in India reflects broader ideological arguments about development priorities. Second, the idea of a science-based policy process has, thus far, spluttered in India despite attempts, in a number of instances, to define clear procedures. Unable to parse through scientific evidence and build public policy on the basis of an understanding of the quality and quantity of data, especially in conditions of complexity and uncertainty, when scientific claims are contested, courts and other institutions in India appear to arbitrarily pick and choose. Third, there is, as yet, little by way of investment in analytics that might help address (p.204) these crucial gaps. For example, the data infrastructure is good in patches, especially as it pertains to air pollution and, to a lesser degree, water pollution; but not very good in others, such as GMOs, on which risk-related data are barely collected, and where there is virtually nothing by way of a systematic monitoring of risks, either at the ecosystem and landscape level, or on human health. Crucially, there is no professional community of any significance specializing in serious risk management, and few research institutions of international renown that attempt systematic inter- and multidisciplinary scientific research, and have the analytical capacity to prioritize or resolve conflicting values.

The case of nuclear energy raises the stakes even further. Traditionally, the nuclear debate in India, as elsewhere, has revolved around three tectonic fault lines: safety, storage, and costs. Safety statistics are not easily forthcoming, but the consensus among those who study the Indian nuclear programme is that there have been too many safety lapses, including several instances of radiation leakage, to sustain the government’s claim that it is safe and clean (Heritage, 1996; Ramana and Reddy, 2003; Raj, Prasad, and Bansal, 2006; Ramana, 2006; Mathai, 2013). India also faces a growing problem of how to store high-level radioactive waste, and, in the long run, of how to police the waste sites intergenerationally and ensure that they do not contaminate people and environments decades or centuries later (Makhijani, Hu, and Yih, 2000; Ramana, Thomas, and Varughese, 2001; Firm, 2008). Turning to costs, it is by no means obvious that nuclear power is either cheap or affordable in India. Moreover, most cost estimates exclude those of safety, storage, and decommissioning (Heritage, 1996; Grimston, 1997; Ramana and Reddy, 2003; Ramana, D’Sa, and Reddy, 2005; Ramana, 2007; Mathai, 2013). In recent times, the three traditional fault lines that shape the nuclear debate have been joined, in India, by movements for transparency and accountability. After five decades, in which India’s atomic energy establishment took decisions without parliamentary or public scrutiny, a raft of public controversies in recent times has forced the debate into politics that pit central and state governments against each other, and thereby opened up many fissures that break the bubble of official consensus on nuclear energy policy. These controversies also raise serious questions about the capacity of the state, and especially of the atomic energy establishment, to respond adequately to the threat of nuclear accidents (Grimston, 1997; Gopalakrishnan, 1999; Anon., 2011; Bidwai, 2011; Ghate, Takwale, and Dhole, 2011; Abraham, 2012; Sovacool and Valentine, 2012).

The literature on risk in the context of complex systems elsewhere in the world highlights three issues to bear in mind while considering the question of the capacity of states to respond adequately to nuclear safety challenges (Smith and Wynne, 1989; Wynne, 1989, 2010, 2012; Irwin and Wynne, 2004; Leach, Scoones, and Wynne, 2005; Jasanoff, 2011). First, there is the (p.205) question of the ability of a given state to initiate effective interdisciplinary and interagency research on risk—especially taking into consideration local cultural conditions about decision-making, behaviour, and authority. The second issue concerns the capacity of the institutions that constitute the nuclear regulatory establishment—with management structures based on established hierarchies and decision-making structures—to respond to rapidly changing scenarios far away from decision-making centres. Where there are high public and environmental safety stakes, the design of management systems that enable groups within organizations to interact and collaborate becomes crucial. More capable regimes on the world stage have the ability to incorporate recalcitrant information, incorporate intelligent crowdsourcing, and integrate whistleblowing and alternative ideas and analytical perspectives into their decision-making iterative churn.

Last but no means least, another critical facet in building regimes of safety concern the communications and interactions between atomic agencies and plants, and the communities in which they are located. Here, the manner in which nuclear establishments treat the people who live near nuclear plants (as partners or adversaries) becomes important, for it is crucial that communities near nuclear facilities understand warning alarms, and behave appropriately when, for example, evacuation procedures are necessitated. Prerequisites for this kind of behaviour, however, are trust, transparency, and consultation. Sadly, the history of interactions between atomic energy experts and laypeople worldwide is full of examples of mistrust and miscommunications. In the case of the Sellafield nuclear plant in the UK, there was a complete breakdown of trust on the part of farmers and shepherds, stemming from their perception that the atomic agency was not squaring up with the truth and not consulting them adequately (Wynne, 1989). Likewise, in Chernobyl, local residents openly flouted restrictions, and moved back to their old (and highly contaminated) residences within a year of the disaster, because of their distrust of the experts (Havenaar et al., 2003).

It is evident that India is challenged in each of these dimensions. To begin with, there are entrenched institutional structures in India with prejudices about the superiority of the so-called ‘hard’ sciences that are instilled from high school. Such memes challenge attempts at building institutions that bridge multiple disciplinary cultures. Moreover, the nuclear establishment is a closed door club, and often adopts a public posture that defies common sense about safety. For example, a report in the Economic Times (15 March 2011) quoted S. K. Jain, the Chairman and Managing Director of the Nuclear Power Corporation, as saying: ‘There is no nuclear accident or incident in Japan’s Fukushima plants. It is a well planned emergency preparedness programme which the nuclear operators of the Tokyo Electric Power Company are carrying out to contain the residual heat after the plants had an automatic shutdown (p.206) following a major earthquake.’ Equally incredible was a quote in the same news report, this time attributed to Dr Srikumar Banerjee, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, who was quoted as saying: ‘Because of the unprecedented Tsunami, the external power was unavailable for the emergency diesel generators to take over… during the process the pressure was building up in the reactor which had to be released in a phased manner, that resulted in the exothermic reaction due to hydrogen generation … It was purely a chemical reaction and not a nuclear emergency as described by some section of media.’ Such comments obviously do not encourage public trust. The claims in the first quote, for example, do not square with the rest of the information that was in the public domain at that time, and in the very newspaper that printed these statements. In contrast, the second quote indicates that the official does not fully grasp the fact that, in complex systems, it is precisely the unexpected breaching of the thin boundaries between chemical and nuclear systems that precipitate catastrophes.

Obviously, it is not responsible to generalize about the nuclear energy establishment on the basis of one or two such data points, especially given that they are based on newspaper sources. However, statements made in public attain the status of social facts, which can be the basis for either public trust or mistrust—for the simple reason that the public has very little third-party verification regarding the safety status of India’s nuclear plants. Experts might argue that laypeople are wrong to distrust them, but they cannot deny that they are right to worry, given the record of safety in other industries, the lack of civic and political accountability, and the history of neglect by state and central governments when catastrophes have hit. Equally important, trust is not achieved when democratic expressions of fear and concern are dealt with in a heavyhanded manner, as was recently witnessed in demonstrations at sites such as Jaitapur (Bidwai et al., 2011). It is this kind of history that has spawned a culture of mistrust, and the lack of a route for public participation has only served to exacerbate this problem, and thereby an inability to foster critical conversations.


To summarize the argument, the debate about forestry and irrigation is about priorities—on how to deliver development to India’s millions. It is also about the collateral damage—ranging from displacement to ecological degradation—brought about by the resource management regimes established by the state over a 100-year period. While the political process is sometimes up to the task of at least recognizing the rights and equity claims of sections of the citizenry, it has largely failed to grapple with ecological degradation—despite the ink, (p.207) the protests, and the now mandatory platitudes. As for risk, the challenge is not just politics and political economy but expertise—especially the seeming lack of state capacity to regulate and manage the various challenges. In the case of Bhopal, the missing expertise involved the failure to respond to a contingency, the inability to conceive a long-term rehabilitation strategy, and the lack of any measure to troubleshoot in context and in situ. The cases of Tehri, Delhi air pollution, and GMOs indicate an inability, across institutional actors, to understand the scientific basis of complexity and uncertainty in risk assessments, and, in contexts where scientific claims are contested, to resolve disputes in a non-arbitrary manner. Last but not least, the nuclear case illustrates the huge schism that exists between official expertise and the democratic aspirations of local populations who fear that their lives are endangered. It also raises questions about the accountability of officials and publicly funded institutions.


I am extremely grateful to Professors Barbara Harriss-White and Delia Davin for inviting me to the conference; for their patience and encouragement; and for their careful and thoughtful editorial work. Any mistakes herein are entirely mine.


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