On Saying NO to Nuclear Energy: SHIV VISHWANATHAN

Shiv Vishwanathan

Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.

The other day I had a dream. I dreamt I lived in a nightmare, a nightmare everyone else saw as normal. It was a world which saw the nuclear regime as normal and it did not make a difference whether it was nuclear energy or nuclear war. Both were necessary and there was nothing as necessary as a necessary evil.

One cannot think of the modern state without the baggage of necessary evils. Torture is a necessary evil. Detention is a necessary evil. Suspension of Rights is a necessary evil. Genocide is a necessary evil. It is almost as if you cannot have a social contract without necessary evils. The greater the evil, the bigger the necessity.

It is the beginning of the Machiavellian mind. I somehow want to belong to a world where ethics is not a technical answer to a technical question. I want my ethics to be playful like I like my future to have laughter. Today politics has become a dismal science and science a dismal politics. We summon experts for everything and an expert seems to be a form of truth outside truth as we all live it.

Inside the dream, I had an idea. I summoned into my head a panchayat of the wise, men and women who have taught me that truth is what you live out. Let me list them out for you. There was Dalai Lama, there was Baba Amte, scientists like Amulya Reddy, C. V. Seshadri, Satish Dhawan, Madhav Gadgil, activists like Aruna Roy and Medha Patkar, wise women like Mahasweta Devi and Ela Bhatt. They were men who brought laughter even to this august crowd, the irrepressible Ashis Nandy and to keep an eye on him, his old compatriot, Rajni Kothari. They were storytellers like U. R. Amantramurthi, all great speakers, also wonderful listeners, people who understood the power of silence like the power of prayer. A commons of wisdom. I asked them about Kudankulam, what it meant, what to say. How does one say no as a resounding yes to life?

I asked the scientist first, a Pavlovian reflex tacitly confessing that Kudankulam was still defined as a scientific problem. That was a give away. Reddy laughed “Science has to return to life. It needs a good laugh at the pomposity of clerks who run our world, who titrate truth through pipettes”.

“Look at number” Seshadri said. “We lie through a number. Number is seen as a form of assurance that creates certainty for the Hamlets in us. Number is a form of story telling. To use percentages is to hazard a guess. Number is a wager, and an estimate, a ratio. Number needs a hermeneutics, a numeracy to match literacy. Numbers have to be read and one has to know how to read a number”.

I naively responded “But President Kalam said Kudankulam is 100% safe”.

There was a wry silence. Dhawan shrugged wryly. “Forget it is young Kalam. He was always a bit serious. Dutifull. You cannot use numbers that way. Numbers need integrity. It is innumerate to say nuclear energy is 100% safe. There is no such thing as a fail safe possibility in this case. 100% is autism, a refusal to face the truth and to realize that truth is a world beyond facts. Between facts and truth lies life. Facts are seductive, apples of knowledge which lie”.

Gadgil added, “Today we live in the world of risk. Risk is a profound form of being. The ontology of risk says one does not know or that one knows only so far. That is uncertainty. But in some cases, one can never know and never predict. One cannot predict a nuclear mechanism. Writing an equation does not mean you can play god”.

“But you can play Pascal” Reddy added. “Blaise Pascal was a great believer but a believer who wished to understand belief. He wanted to explain why one should believe in God. He stated what is now called the Pascalian wager. To believe that God exists makes you behave ethically, creates a code of duty, a set of dos and don’ts. Honour your father. Love your neighbour. Even if God does not exist, acting as if you do, helps. It creates a form of goodness”.

“Imagine later you discover God does not exist, that tired of man he had left behind a bit of clockwork. It does not matter. A clock even as a poor concept of God keeps God going. It is a bit like Niels Bohr”, Seshadri explained. “He loved the logic of quantum but still stuck a horse shoe in his lab door. When asked, he said ‘just in case…..”.

Dhawan explained there are somethings you can never know but that does not mean that knowledge is not necessary. Science and ethics become much more essential. You need knowledge to say you do not know. Not knowing is an essential form of knowledge. To say, we don’t know, creates a form of precaution, of caring, for eventually knowledge is not hubris, it is a form of caring. Caring is connecting and as you connect you will realize that the very connectivity of nuclear energy demands that you say no to it. It is an ethics of prudence, of modesty of a science that senses limits and converts them to possibilities .

Seshadri added “Saying no to the nuclear demands you work on the other forms of energy. The sun. The leaf. Every civilization has to decide whether it gets its energy from the reactor 50 miles away or 93 million miles away from the sun”.

These are choices and there are alternatives. We think nuclear energy sounds necessary when it is not. The reasons are not scientific. Nuclear Energy is a reason of state.

The Dalai Lama smiled wickedly. “Yes, nuclear energy brings out the scientist in me. I think when Japan decided to shut down the nuclear plants, it became a civilization again. Ethics and aesthetics, honour and modesty became a weave. Japan realized the limits of modernity”.

I piped in. I said people feel Japan is weakening, that it is a failed China.

Dalai Lama laughed. He said “Admitting a mistake is the beginning of a civilization”

“And of science”, said Seshadri. “It is cybernetic, a knowledge that realizes, limits of knowledge”.

‘That is also ethics’ said Ela Bhatt.

Satish Dhawan continued “Poker is a kind of theology. A poker player, a good one, knows when to stop. Scientists are good poker players. They are worried that God might play dice with the world but man cannot. Kalam should have known that. You see number is a form of trusteeship. Each number is sacred. An integer needs to have integrity”.

I was puzzled.

Reddy explained, ‘No good insurance agent would insure a nuclear plant. A scientist should atleast know what an insurance salesman does’.

I asked persistently ‘You mean Kalam is a poor poker player’?

They answered “And a worse politician. As a scientist he should have taken numbers seriously. Numbers are an ethics. You cannot treat them like Stalinist production statistics”.

‘Let me put it simply’ I said. “What does it mean when the Secretary of Atomic Energy says, building a nuclear plant is safer that crossing a road in Delhi. The joke sounds so reassuring to journalists.”

Gadgil replied, “That shows the jokes on him. Scientists who join committees often think like one”.

Reddy explained “there is the ethics of Risk. Risk is a recognition that science has changed. It is an acceptance of prudence, the recognition that you do not know, the acknowledgement that a road accident and a nuclear explosion are different, different in scale and quantity. You have to design differently for both”.

The Dalai Lama smiled. “Pilgrimage should be a part of scientific method. Every atomic scientist should visit Hiroshima and Chernobyl, spend a few moments in meditation to understand what a Hibakusha means, a survivor of an atomic blast”.

I was watching Kothari and Nandy both lighting their pipes as a way of thinking. I turned to them. I said “if nuclear reactor is bad science, what makes it good politics?”

Kothari chuckled. “Politicians. And scientists playing politicians. The Raja Ramannas, the M G K Menons. Good scientists who were better nationalists. They left science to become devotees of the nation state”.

“Nuclear energy feeds the state not a people”, Nandy began cautiously.

Kothari explained, “Energy has been a contentious object. The state has always been built on energy. Lenin said “Soviets- electricity = communism”. Nehru said ‘Dams are temples of modern India. Then all their science and their politics could do is create Gulags”.

Nandy said, “I am going to say something wicked. Civil society emerged to create the grail of energy away from the state. Civil society moved to more modest forms of energy-the sun, the wind, waste, Biogas. Civil society felt that energy is a form of civics. Gargantuan energy leads to gargantuan states”.

Kothari nodded “Big science and big states create the new Hobbesian world. Big science and big states create the new sovereignty”.

“1984 should have been about a nuclear plant”. Aruna Roy piped in, in a moment of epiphany.

Ela Bhatt smiled. “She observed no housewife would want a nuclear plant. It breaks the Swadesi rule. You cannot control it”. She added wryly “since war began in the minds of men, it is the minds of women that the defences of peace must be constructed”.

The Dalai Lama chuckled ‘Nuclear Energy brings out the theologian in us. And the feminist’.

I was skeptical. He smiled and explained. “A housewife is a body of knowledge. She knows what budget as a number means. Budget is a ratio of limit to possibility. Budget is an ethics. Budgets are not just about households. They are about planets and the cosmos. You need energy budgets for the world”.

He continued, “A budget is also a theory of suffering. A housewife suffers. She understands the everydayness of suffering. She knows you cannot buy happiness cheap. Nuclear energy tries that. It isolates the ethics and ecology of a housewife. See it as a feminine logic not as a feminist ideology”.

I was feeling exasperated. I wanted wisdom on Kudankulam, a catechism to match what the media and state was saying. I wanted a policy statement.

Amte helped me gently. He said, “There is so little wisdom in policy, it is a kind of inflationary knowledge, knowledge created by experts. You need to be a craftsman to understand nuclear energy”.

I felt I was in mad merry go around with a collection of Shamans out on a picnic. By this time private arguments had broken out. These shamans looked more like happy children. Ashis Nandy was talking of missile energy and analyzing Indian science.

Anandmurthi was nodding ruefully. “It is more than a case of pathology Ashis. Nuclear energy was a failure of language, of story telling. It should have been a cosmo-comic, a story that inhales huge sections of time. The time of nuclear energy runs to millions of years and yet we telegraph it to a decade. When storytelling declines and language suffers, you get symptoms like nuclear energy. There was no poignancy, no pathos, no irony, and no regret. No guilt. Cost benefit analysis and efficiency tells you little. A thermometer measures heat but a Dante has to tell you about hell”.

A whimsical impish man in a lungi and a bright kurta had joined the crowd; he was a philosopher with six Ph.Ds called Raimundo Pannikkar.

“It is a pity nuclear energy was physics, when it should have been metaphysics ”

“Or a pataphysics, like the surrealist talked of, creating an imaginary physics around the real one”. Pannikar explained, “Kudankulam cannot be about a little fishing village. One then freezes its geography and creates cartography of power and memory. As a small piece of the coast, it seems dispensable, disposable along with the people on it. Studied as geography, it probably just makes a google map”.

“So what?” I said impatiently. This convention of Socratics was making me reach for the hemlock.

“Not Socratic” said Raimundo. “Aesop. Aesop had more wisdom than all the cost benefit analysts in the world. a hundred fables of nuclear energy told with the endearing affability of the fox and the crow. Kudankulam should not be a petition to the state. It should have been a civilizational debate, summoning Tagore or a Gandhi”.

C. V. Seshadri said “Kudankulam is a thought experiment in the real time. It shows that if you begin with official science, modern economics, and political theory, you will reach Kudankulam. Current categories lead to the current crisis. Look at all the key terms at Kudankulam- energy, security, efficiency, development, progress, and cost. It is a ‘don’t use me dictionary of terms’, a lethal Thesaurus of our time. You cannot argue the case in these terms”.

Kothari added “Our protest movements are too reverential. They enter the debate as supplicants, as petitioners when actually we need a new Magna Charta, a freedom to dream and live differently”.

Rajni continued, “We think Kudankulam is a little dot. We argue that the margins only produce marginality. Half of Delhi cannot identify Kudankulam on a map. Our clerks will claim it enters history only as a nuclear plant. For our bureaucrats, fishing villages have no history”.

Nandy explained “The margin is always alien. We do not need Mars when we have Kudankulam”.

Then added “Yet that is the sadness of our democracy. Our democracy breeds and thrives on informal economies, on margins, on nomads, and slums and pastoral groups. We pretend they do not exist and get irritated when they insist that they do”.

Aruna Roy added quietly “We are a strange democracy which attributed thought only to experts. Fisherman can fish but not think. If they do, then it must be foreign hand, an NGO conspiracy, and the dangers of conversion. Delhi and Jayalalitha are convinced fisherman who think and think about nuclear energy are alien creatures. A state which treats them like planktons suddenly sees them as sharks”.

U.R. said “Kudankulam is a miniaturized India, a margin that pops up at the centre. And that is India, a civilization where the margins refuse to allow the centre to feel central. The sadness of democracy is that the centre has seceded from India and does not know it”.

“Kudankulam”, said Ela “must be enacted five times. As a village Sunvai, as a civil society debate, as a policy issue by nation state and science, as a planetary fable and a civilizational dialogue. Five times like a pentagram of the Nuclear Debate”.

I barged in “the petition of the thirtieth may says nothing of this. It talks of safety, participation, RTI, land”.

Kothari said “Precisely. Kudankulam needs to be fought legally and philosophically. Kudankulam is the heart of India. It belongs to all of us. Like Gandhi would advice, we fight it twice. As a village struggle and as a drama of modernity, as Dandi March and as Hind Swaraj”.

I commented wryly. I was wondering when the old man would enter the stage.

The panchayat went on as if I had not spoken. “Gandhi”, Pannikar rotated the word on his tongue as if it was a licorice, a magic lozenge in his multilingual mouth.

I was a bit diddled. I said Kudankulam is already there. The government has spent over 1,500 crores on it. It seems inevitable.

Roy said, “Folly always is. That is how we treat development projects. We begin without consulting the people. By the time, the displaced organize, the contractors are already at work. Everyone argues that the half done has to be completed. The contractors sound more patriotic as the project proceeds.

“What can we do to stop it?” I asked.

Ela Bhatt explained “Do what Gandhi would do. Send a Kumarappa to organize surveys and a Rajendra Prasad to organize relief. Create a debate. Show that the protest like a Charkha connects to every aspect of community, to the church, to fisherman, to the sea, to the fish”. Fish need rights, if fishermen have to survive. Polluting the sea is a criminal act. Introduce the idea of the last man to confront the first scientist. Ask not only who benefits but who suffers. Ask Why is suffering and protest against it seen as antinational. There is nothing inevitable about nuclear energy.”

Patkar added “let us set up a Kudankulam in every panchayat. A forum that debates development and insists on prior consensus. Security cannot deprive us of rights. Security cannot threaten livelihood.”

Amte argued further. He said “the state uses development as terror. It did so at Narmada. It is doing this at Kudankulam. The sea is the last commons. The pity is fisherman like many communities think from water to land. For them water is life and livelihood. Our rulers are so parochial, they cannot understand that”

Patkar added, “the state is cordoning off the people. Nuclear power is the new enclosure moment. In Gujarat, the Adanis are eating up the coastline. The boat yatras are challenging the corporate take over the coast. All these movements have to be linked up. Let us take democracy seriously. Only then can we take nuclear energy seriously.

“Ask if RTI works. Ask if safety is a commons. Ask if fish have a status in the cost benefit. Ask if religious beliefs are respected. Ask if civil society were to send experts would they be allowed in? Ask who represents the sea, the coastline? Nature has to be represented in the contract.”

Mahasweta added, “Nuclear energy is the marriage of Manmohan’s Economics and Jayalalitha’s politics. The new coalitions are not parties; they are a marriage of categories. Globalization is a short gun marriage of categories forced down our people. Saying no to nuclear energy is the beginning of the new democracy. The new march begins from every village and state to Kudankulam. It is a place where conscience is reborn. We need to invent it in every village. Kudankulam is all of us. If the protest at Kudankulam dies something dies in all of us. The Dandi march against development has begun. No Indian can let it die or India dies with it”.

The fragment ended here. I desperately asked them what about the rest. They said the rest is up to you. India has to decide what it wants, how many people and land and fish it wants to destroy. The choices are clear. Does democracy choose life or in its indifference decide it is quietly genocidal. Kudankulam raise the question as a prayer, an appeal, and a protest. History has shown that a civilization begins to die when it ignores an ethical debate in a village. The butterfly effects of history have already begun happening.


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