Beyond Koodankulam: Democracy and Risk Society

Shiv vishwanathan

ONE OF the paradoxes about India is that while the elite express fears about democracy and governance, local communities keep reinventing democratic questions with enthusiasm. One can think of many events from the battle over mining in Odisha and Karnataka to the struggle over corruption. One kind of thought experiment such groups have been actively inventive about is the relation between science and democracy. A debate that began over dams and development has now extended to city planning, pollution, nuclear energy and environment. Earlier, many of these debates were fought in terms of externalities, of consequences. Science was blackboxed or seen as intrinsically good. The expert was conceived as immaculate, someone who is never wrong. Of late, democracy has started questioning the sanctity of expertise.

Three kinds of events have challenged the nature of science as a knowledge system. They are debates on biotechnology, especially around Bt Brinjal. The report produced by the academies of science was worse than a second-rate tutorial. The common man and NGOS realised science as a professional institution was neither responsible, nor sure of what it was saying.

To add to the embarrassment of the academies, the nuclear accident in Fukushima triggered by the tsunami came soon after, a global event that saw top Japanese scientists helpless to guarantee safety. While Japanese scientists looked uncertain, our scientific establishment waxed cocksure, giving certificates to itself. This discordance between global uncertainty and Indian certainty made the public wonder whether the nuclear establishment could be trusted.

The third anxiety was science-induced and created around climate change. A spate of disasters ranging from cyclones, floods, earthquakes and the devastation that followed made ordinary people ask whether climate was something scientists could understand or control. The question was posited at two levels. First, do scientists know and second, can science guarantee the certainty of knowing?

The public realised that the classic definition of science as public and certifiable knowledge was flawed. The scientist himself was in a quandary as not only had the philosophical construction of science changed but the public perception of it too was altering. This questioning began earlier in the West over atomic energy, biotech foods and disaster management. The nuclear debates in the West have quietened down but they have acquired a persistent quality in India. The old opposition of the dominance of expert over citizen, which anchored technocratic democracies is now wilting because the citizen is defining himself as a person of knowledge. He feels responsible and literate enough to question state and corporate expertise as they grow gargantuan and arrogant.

The recent battles at the Koodankulam nuclear plant and even the earthquake in Sikkim raised these issues once again. How does one describe these emerging set of issues without getting bogged down by conspiracy theories or falling into the old critiques of science? These argued that not science but the misuse of science created problems. We confront today a problem in the politics of knowledge. It is not just a question of sociology and political economy but of epistemology, about theories of science as truth, as valid knowledge. We are facing an era where scientific knowledge can no longer offer certainty in many domains. India is emerging as a risk society. Risk has to become a new term in our vocabulary of survival and in the language of democracy. We cannot afford to be anti-intellectual. Risk is a world we are living in and democracy has to confront it. What is risk?

One of the biographers of the intellectual idea of risk was the German sociologist Ulrich Beck. Beck began with everyday events. Imagine you are drinking tea and found it had DDT or that your cake had formaldehyde. This is a kind of knowledge that is not easy to predict. People cannot rely on their own knowledge and face a dependency on outside sources. One discovers that one knows that one does not know. Also one realises that any object can become a Trojan horse, that an everyday object — a cosmetic, a food, a paint — can become a hazard.

Beck observes that three things are occurring simultaneously. Firstly, there is a scienticisation of risk and our sensibilities because we become actively aware of these anxieties. Secondly, the commerce in risk is growing. Public expenditure on protection, the new branches of the economy and knowledge devoted to risk, is increasing. A whole new market is created around them. But the third event is bleakest. It shows science cannot predict or act with certainty about risk technologies. Wisdom is mere hindsight and a hindsight that cannot be used as future guide. Technical expertise is often mistaken. When the public reacts to these mistaken prophecies or guarantees, the scientist often climbs the high horse of expertise and condemns the public as irrational, illiterate or superstitious.

IN FACT, the idea of risk in technologies was often met by denial in science. The Newtonian certainties of science faced a crisis in realising that certainty is not axiomatically possible. The crisis was simple. In Europe, in particular, science as expertise had to disempower itself and move closer to the democratic imagination. It was a task many scientists were not ready for. Particularly in India, certainty and predictability were the fig leaves with which science hid the truth about itself. Watch Indian TV or any debate about genetics, nuclear energy, even pollution. Scientists begin losing their tempers when questioned about their expertise. It took decades before scholar-activists like Vandana Shiva, Ashish Nandy, Amulya Reddy, CV Seshadhri, Claude Alvarez, Sunita Narain, Kartikeya Sarabhai and Kavita Kuruganti could change this perception. They still have a long way to go to assure scientists that such a critique is not unscientific, or anti-development but a realistic part of the new understanding of science.

Oddly, the people’s movements in India sensed this possibility before the scientists became literate on it. John Ziman, a fellow of the Royal Society, wrote years ago that a scientist knows as much about science as a fish about hydrodynamics. Both can swim but they often lack a self-conscious understanding of their skills. The scientist paradoxically can pursue science without realising that the nature of science as knowledge has changed. The idea of risk had to emerge against the very forces of the old idea of scientific rationality.

The scientist will often tell you that crossing a road in Delhi is more risky than building a nuclear plant. Science faces its theological self-claiming infallibility at the very moment of heresy. Second, the nature of risks is trivialised. One saw it in a tragic way in Bhopal. We knew so little about the chemicals we used. In fact, an editorial in the British science journal Nature claimed that one consequence of the Bhopal gas disaster was that our understanding of methyl isocyanate increased.

Democracy and science have to work together to face such situations. One requires from citizens a sense of hope that does not yield to fears, doubt and suspicion. One needs from the scientist an abandonment of cliché, of the stereotyped view of science and its certainties. One needs both conversation and protest. It is a learning process where a scientist has to have the maturity and modesty to accept that a citizen’s understanding of science could be valid and pragmatic. He has to be ready for a public participation in science and accept that science and technology cannot be blackboxed. Governance requires the opening and questioning of scientific knowledge but not just by scientists or specialists.

The activist has to realise that the subject is contoured, that there are a gradient of anxieties and uncertainties. A bullock cart may not be as threatening as a nuclear plant. Secondly, some objects become threatening in particular contexts. An ultrasound can be a harmless machine but within the domain of sex tests acquires a life-denying impetus. Thirdly, one has to allow for a period when both sides get over their suspicions. A scientist playing Rumplestiltskin has to be as welcome as an activist forecasting apocalypse. One interesting attempt to do so has been the Dutch attempt to examine the inner drama of their health council. The Dutch realised that the European debates on food were melodramatic and one needed a conversation of a different order. The story was published in a book called The Paradox of Scientific Authority. One needs a similar attempt here to link life, livelihood, lifestyles and life cycles in a debate. The Koodankulam crisis has to be seen as an opportunity where both science and citizens abandon fundamentalisms and create new experiments with truth, which add to the moral and scientific imagination of democracy.


Shiv Visvanathan is Social science nomad.


Article Courtesy: Tehelka

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