Nuclear energy: No longer a sacred cow

by Shiv Visvanathan

An anti-nuclear activist in India is a marginal creature, frowned upon as anti-national and anti-scientific. I have been a part of the anti-nuclear movement for years, watching and debating with outstanding scientists. The nuclear energy establishment was almost sacrosanct, the technology a passport to modernity. Those who challenged it were therefore seen as dinosaurs in the age of 21st century technology.

But sometimes things change.

The other day I was watching TV and listening to a whole generation of scientists defend a nuclear project. These were the legends of the time, but now just looked cantankerous.  And I realised that every activist must turn spectator. It is not just a switch in perspective, but it also allows one to obtain a deeper sense of drama.

 Nuclear energy: No longer a sacred cow

The proposed site of the Jaitapur nuclear plant in Ratnagiri district.

The Indian nuclear establishment has been full of Brahmins, especially Tamil Brahmin hawks. Displaced in their own state, they have become custodians of the atom state. They have been the most eloquent defenders of the relation between atomic energy and the state. No bunch of Jesuits was more loyal to the cause than the Indian nuclear technocracy.  The Brahmin hawks of the nuclear establishment were either dismissive or ferociously arrogant about dissent. When questioned, they bristled, often acting as if their science, their patriotism or even their integrity was being questioned.

Dissenters, even outstanding scientists like CV Sheshadri or Amulya Reddy were brushed aside as if they were unnecessary viruses. The latter two offered a whole dream of alternative energy linking it to the socialist and democratic imaginations. The only other exception was Satish Dhawan, Director of the Indian Institute of Science and one of the brains behind space research. He encouraged the debate on the Kaiga nuclear project in Karnataka. But scientists like Raja Ramanna, who was Head of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), behaved like Fascist bullies when confronted with questions. Ramanna would dub journalists critical of atomic energy as anti-national.

This problem was compounded by the Nehru regime. The Bhabha-Nehru friendship added a sense of grace to the nuclear project. Stories that the Pugwash movement almost began in India added nuances of sensibility to it. The Congress under Nehru and Indira Gandhi created an almost incestuous link between State and nuclear science. It embodied a combination of science as expertise and atomic energy as security, to create an establishment that operated for decades outside the political domain. For years, questioning atomic energy was taboo in India.

Things have changed. There were several reasons for this. People in their ordinary lives found scientific evidence unconvincing. Secondly, human rights movements were surprised to discover crucial issues being brushed under the carpet of security. Thirdly, the science of science movement had emerged, providing a critical frame to look at nuclear energy. It was a process that took time and it was aided by a few journalists and social scientists like Praful Bidwai, Ashis Nandy, Dhiren Sharma and Jit Uberoi. These individuals showed courage, a scholarship, stamina to survive the assaults of the establishment providing a dignity and a transparency to the debate. As scholars, they were impeccable and as dissenters, extremely durable.

But in a broader sense, it was democracy that brought nuclear energy into question. I must emphasise it was not the political party. The political party was always subservient to the social contract between the science and the state. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was ready to resign rather than weaken the will to nuclear power. The CPM did open up issues about the US-India nuclear treaty, and expose the fairness of nuclear contracts to scrutiny. Of course, it was questioning the American connection rather the fact of nuclear energy. But it was civil society, particularly social movements in ecology, rights and science that opened up the debate on nuclear energy.

The movements at Rawatbhata, the Jaitapur plant, the struggle at Koodankulum, slowly challenged the nuclear officialdom. What also helped was the devastation of the Japanese nuclear plants after the tsunami. At that moment, the sanctimonious certainty of our scientists was irritating. It felt out of place. While the world was debating nuclear safety, our scientists were insisting they were above debate.

Another fact that added to it was TV. TV as a media has always loved scientific experts. They are summoned whenever the people need to be reassured and TV summoned many of the best. Just as TV exposed the frailties of Nixon’s temperament during the US elections, TV revealed that scientists, many of them now retired, were irascible. One realised that they had little idea of democracy or debate and seemed to think they could legislate with impunity about it.

In fact, one of the most fascinating parts of the nuclear debate was the scientist’s discovery that people can think and even question them on science. It was sad watching scientists from Nehruvian era turning apoplectic about democracy. One respected their nationalism, their commitment to an old paradigm but one realised that their words and their worlds no longer carried conviction. They appeared moth-balled. They seemed to have forgotten that both science and society have changed in the last two decades.

The intellectual climate has changed and that new generations are being asked about energy in terms of democracy, participation, plurality and lifestyle. Words and concept get interesting in this context. The conflation between people and population was fascinating. The scientists preferred the word population. Population was abstract; it could be reduced to number. The ‘people’ was a vague term.  It refused representation. Like the subaltern, it wanted to speak for itself in a variety of dialects, and  talk about livelihood, rights, survival. For the scientists, the people became the crowd –irrational and unscientific, like mobs in history. Every nuclear scientist behaved like a harassed Galileo without the redemption.

The nuclear debate thus becomes a fable. We always looked upon science as an act of invention and then discovered democracy has to be more inventive than science. The scientific establishment has to have the humility to realise its arrogance bordered on illiteracy. One needs a new imagination where science no longer behaves like a sacred cow and opens itself to a more playful imagination, where science can accept its mistakes and engage openly with the people without treating them as illiterates.

The citizen as scientist demands that the scientist also be a citizen. It is only such a reciprocity that can guarantee the democratisation of democracy.

Shiv Visvanathan is a Social Science nomad.



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Updated Date: Oct 20, 2011 12:34:15 IST