Uttarakhand reiterates that our rulers have contemptuous disregard for the advice of the best scientists and would rather listen to contractors and builders to whom they are beholden for funds
In the early 1980s, while doing research on the environmental history of Uttarakhand, I sometimes visited the library of the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Dehradun. Most of the journals in the library dealt with geology and earth sciences, but there were a few on conservation policy relevant to my work. One day, the librarian pointed to a man with glasses leafing though some journals. ‘Valdiya Saheb ayé hain, Nainital sé’, he said.
The tone in the librarian’s voice conveyed respect, with a dash of local pride. Then in his early forties, K.S. Valdiya was already recognised as a world-class geologist. He grew up in rural Kumaon, in the border district of Pithoragarh, and studied in village schools before going on to Lucknow University, where he did his M.Sc. and PhD, the launching pad for a research career solid in substance and achievement. While the hills had produced many great lawyers, freedom fighters, soldiers, and poets, Professor Valdiya was then, and remains still, one of the few Uttarakhandis to have achieved distinction in the natural sciences. And while many ambitious Uttarakhandis have abandoned the hills in search of professional success, the geologist has remained closely connected to the region. He did much of his fieldwork in the interior Himalaya, and — at the height of his career — took up a job in Kumaun University in Nainital rather than in a more prestigious university elsewhere in India (see, for more details on his work and career, www.ksvaldiya.info).
Back in 1981, I was too timid to go up to speak to Professor Valdiya. But now that I am older, and we both live in Bangalore, I sought his views on the devastating tragedy in a region he knew so well both as resident and as scientist. I asked, did the government of his native State consult him while designing development projects in the Uttarakhand Himalaya, a notoriously fragile environment prone to earthquakes, landslides, cloud bursts, and floods? His answer was that no, it never had. In the 15 years since Uttarakhand was formed, the politicians and administrators who ran the State had not once sought the inputs of this expert on Himalayan geology, who happened also to be a native of the State. What made the neglect even more striking is that for nine of those 15 years, Professor Valdiya had been the President of the Governing Body of the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, itself located in Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand. The neglect continues — as the Director of the Wadia Institute informed me in response to an email query, the Uttarakhand government never consults them while framing their policies and programmes.
I wonder — which is better, not being consulted at all, or being consulted and then having your report rejected? Consider the case of Madhav Gadgil, who in some respects is the K.S. Valdiya of the Western Ghats. He was born on the crest of the Ghats, and has spent his life doing research on its human and natural communities. No one alive knows more about a hill range that is the peninsular version of the Himalaya, home to many great rivers, and to a fantastic reservoir of biodiversity, on whose careful and sensitive treatment depends the livelihood of millions of people.
In 2009, in a rare moment of sanity, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests commissioned Professor Gadgil to write a report on an appropriate strategy for the region. He took his job seriously, involving younger scientists at the forefront of cutting-edge research, and holding a series of public hearings. After much fieldwork and consultation, a fact-filled and carefully argued report was submitted to the Ministry. The contents of the report so angered the Minister that she refused even to meet a man recognised as one of the world’s great ecologists, a recipient of medals and honours from the world’s finest universities.
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.
A second reason for the lack of scientific input in public policy making is the hegemony of the Indian Administrative Service. Back in 1977, in a bid to break this stranglehold, the then Prime Minister, Morarji Desai, inducted several professionals as secretaries to government. Thus M.S. Swaminathan became the first scientist to be chosen as Agriculture Secretary, Manuel Menezes the first engineer to be appointed Secretary of Defence Production, Lovraj Kumar the first chemist to serve as Petroleum Secretary. These initiatives were welcome, if belated. The need now was to make them more widespread, so that other ministries could likewise be run by qualified experts rather than by generalists.
In 1980 Indira Gandhi returned to power. One of her first acts was to start a new Department of Environment, and hire a first-rate botanist (T.N. Khooshoo) as its Secretary. But slowly the IAS began to fight back. It reclaimed possession of the ministries it had lost control of. In recent years, while continuing to protect its turf, the IAS has expanded into new areas. It has close to total domination (at both Central and State levels) over such institutions as the Election Commission and the Information Commission, which are run by retired IAS officers, although their jobs can be done just as well by well trained (and public spirited) lawyers or social scientists.
To be sure, the IAS does have some outstandingly competent — and professionally upright — individuals, some of whom do excellent work as Secretaries to government. However, too many babus now spend their last years in service lobbying for post-retirement sinecures, assiduously cultivating their political bosses in the hope that this will assure them five more years with a house, car, and an army of flunkies in Lutyen’s New Delhi.
The IAS has been slightly less successful in capturing an institution set up to prevent or mitigate tragedies such as the Uttarakhand floods, namely, the National Disaster Management Authority. Two of the eight members of the NDMA are retired IAS officers. Two others are retired officers of the Indian Police Service, yet another a retired Major General. Three members do have a scientific background, but two of them have spent the bulk of their career as administrators in government. Only one of the eight members, an earth scientist named Harsh Gupta, seems to be a scientist of real professional distinction.
All the members of the NDMA are well past 60. Most have spent the past decade (or more) pushing files in the secretariat. How, one wonders, would they have the energy and commitment to actively direct or oversee rehabilitation operations? Or the necessary scientific expertise and foresight to prescribe how to avert such tragedies in the future? Why are there not more practising scientists in the NDMA? Surely at least one practising social worker can valuably serve as a member?
In the better-run democracies of the world, expert knowledge is brought into governance and public policy in two distinct ways. First, scientists in universities and research laboratories are frequently called in to advise State and local governments. If the Government of British Columbia, for example, wishes to design an ecodevelopment plan for the Rockies, it shall certainly solicit — and most likely heed — the opinion of scientists in the State’s own universities.
Second, there is much greater scope for the lateral entry of professionals into government — at middle as well as senior levels. Doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, economists, and managers can all enter the public sector after 10 or 15 years in the private sector, and — based on their competence alone — rise to the top of the ladder, assuming posts equivalent in their system to Secretaries to government in ours. Even senior Cabinet positions are often assigned to specialists. Thus President Obama got a Nobel-prize winning physicist, no less, to serve as his Secretary of Energy.
The Indian state, on the other hand, displays — as its treatment of Professors Valdiya and Gadgil demonstrates — a contemptuous disregard for the practical advice of its best scientists. It chooses rather to go with the counsel of risk-averse retired babus or deal-making contractors and builders.
(Ramachandra Guha’s books include India after Gandhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)