Public policy crisis: Netas and IAS babus united against science

The Uttarakhand tragedy has shone a hard bright light on the ugliest flaws of our nation and its polity. The greatest, argued Pratap Bhanu Mehta, is our poverty of self-knowledge.

“Indian society, with all its changes, is fast becoming a tale of misalignment: its self-understanding and its realities pulling in different directions. The social self-knowledge, the process by which society acquires an insight into its own workings and acts on it, lags behind its material capabilities,” he wrote in the Indian Express last month. And nowhere is this misalignment more apparent than in the debate over the tradeoff between development and the environment. The crumbling mountains reflected our government's inability, nay, unwillingness, to mobilise authoritative scientific knowledge to answer important questions about sustainability, and craft policy to promote the same.

In today's edition of The Hindu, Ramachandra Guha, extends and amplifies the argument with greater specificity. Offering two examples of great environmental scientists — KS Valdiya and Madhav Gadgil — he shows how governance is now divorced from expertise:

A key reason that State and national governments don’t consult qualified experts — or disregard their advice when it is offered to them — is expedience. K.S. Valdiya, for example, is known to be sceptical — on strictly scientific grounds — of the siting of large dams and construction projects in the Himalaya. Beholden as they often are to contractors and builders for funds, Ministers and MLAs would thus rather steer clear of such scientists. Or turn their back on them — which is what happened with the Gadgil report, whose call for protecting endangered landscapes stands in the way of the desire of politicians across parties to convert the ecologically fragile Western Ghats into a web of holiday homes, power plants, and the like.

Politicians are, of course, the usual and obvious suspects in the crime of disastrous development. This is not new. Guha, however, offers a new and hitherto unacknowledged villain: The IAS babu. Up until the 1980s, the likes of Morarji Desai and Indira Gandhi appointed scientists as secretaries in areas that required expertise for effective policymaking, be it defense production, environment, or agriculture. But the IAS has since fought back the tide, and with a vengeance. The career bureaucrat now dominates almost every department, agency and commission. Hence, only one of the 8 members of the National Disaster Management Authority is a scientist of any distinction.

 Public policy crisis: Netas and IAS babus united against science

File photo of rescue operations in Uttarakhand. PTI

Guha's essay is a timely and critical reminder of how policy is actually framed in this country, not on the basis of scientific knowledge but on the "counsel of risk-averse retired babus or deal-making contractors and builders." And it also points to the ways in which we have debased knowledge in the name of politics, including the environmental sciences and scientists who are dismissed as 'green' activists, while we embrace politically calculated pseudo-scientific claims that fit our ideological biases. In our national debate, every policy issue becomes a political football, to be screamed over at prime time. The noise disguising the unpleasant reality of a 20-year bipartisan consensus which embraces short-term gain over long-term sustainability, political expedience over intellectual expertise.

You can read Guha's op-ed, 'When expedience trumps expertise', on the Hindu website.

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Updated Date: Jul 11, 2013 14:00:04 IST

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