Friday, July 27, 2007

Nuclear, anti-nuclear

The Sunday Observer, June 20-26, 1993
Our lonely nuclear high priests

Shivanand Kanavi

In a ceremony at Trombay on January 20, 1957, to name the first swimming pool type reactor, APSARA, Jawaharlal Nehru made some perceptive remarks. “I am happy to be here,” he said “not because I know very much about atomic energy or reactors, in spite of the numerous attempts Dr Bhabha and Dr Krishnan have made to educated me, but without understanding the intricacies of these mysteries, I hope I have some conception of the importance in this world of ours, of the release of this great power.”

“In the old days, the men of religion talked about mysteries. In ancient Greece, there were the mysteries. High priests who apparently knew about these mysteries exercised a great amount of influence on the common people who did not understand them. In every country that was so. The high priests in those days possibly dominated the thinking in many countries with their mysterious functions, ceremonies and rituals.”

“Now we have these mysteries, which these high priests of science flourish before us, not only flourish but threaten us with; and at any rate make us full of wonder or full of fear. Whatever it is, we have got these new mysteries of science, and of higher mathematics, which are unveiling various aspects of the physical world to us. No one knows where this will go.”

In a flash of brilliance, Nehru had captured the predicament of the common man when faced with the mysteries of nature and high priests of science –feeling both wonder and fear.

Our atomic scientists, who best represented the growth of science and technology in modern India, are no longer the unalloyed heroes they were in the fifties and sixties in the public perception. Why is this so? Have we come half circle from wonder to the fear that Nehru perceived?

From the euphoria of the fifties to anti-nuclear agitations and litigations of the eighties and nineties, a section of our intelligentsia seem to have made an about- turn. Some even sound like anti-science mystics. This phenomenon is worth investgating seriously. Otherwise, we will be lost in pro-nuclear, anti-nuclear dogma and rhetoric.
Pro- nukes call the anti-nukes irrational, stubborn, callous towards mass poverty-alleviation, radical chic and even agents of western imperialism who are trying to force India to go slow on its nuclear programme and eventually sign the hegemonistic nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The anti-nukes call the other side ivory-tower technocrats, science fundamentalists, reductionists (a new abuse), brainwashed by western concept of material progress etc. it is clear that the dispute has crossed limits of decency and has become a them and us confrontation

A good example is that of Dr Shivaram Karanth. More than four decades ago he compiled and published, at his own cost, a beautifully illustrated and lucidly written three-volume children’s encyclopedia called Bala Jagattu in Kannada and a two-volume science encyclopedia called Vijnana Prapancha .

It was a pioneering effort in popular science writing in Kannada. Today, Karanth, a Gyanpeeth laureate and a nonagenarian intellectual, is fighting a prolonged battle in the Supreme Court against the nuclear power plant at Kaiga, 60 Kilometeres from Karwar, in Karanataka.

These developments appear to have demoralized nuclear scientists and engineers. They have not come to terms with their transformation from heroes to villains, from nation builders to potential destroyers. I have seen bewilderment expressed in numerous conversations. More than the resource crunch, what seem have hit them is this fall from grace.
The Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor that is being installed in Kaiga has been developed by Indians and is a credit to their skills, it is much safer than the type that was used in Chernobyl. It uses natural uranium as against the enriched uranium that Western nation have refused to sell to India if it does not sign the NPT.

The Kaiga plant will produce 440 Mw of electricity to begin with and ultimately 1,400 Mw, shoring up the infrastructure in power-hungry Karnataka. The plant has enough in-built safety devices. Of course accidents can happen any were. The rain forest cut to clear the land for the project has been adequately compensated by reforestation both in Kaiga and in distant Chamarajnagar and Mandya. It is to be noted that the forest cleared is about five percent of what has been destroyed in 1,200 Mw Kalinadi hydroelectric project.

Taking note of all these factors, the Supreme Court in a recent judgment clubbed all the petitions filed against the Kaiga project together and dismissed them. The court has advised the Department of Atomic Energy that if it so desires, it can give a hearing to the petitioners’ grievance. The department has given the petitioners opportunity to prepare a brief using the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute(NEERI) report on environmental impact of the project if necessary and submit it for discussion.

Clearly, the Supreme Court verdict is a vindication of the stand of the nuclear scientist and not that of the anti-nuclear movement that had concentrated on the safety aspect and destruction of the rain forest in Kaiga. Has the issue been settled? It is doubtful. There may be agitation again. “Why is it that issues, which can be explained with facts and figures and reasoning are not understood by some of our intellectuals?” asked an exasperated nuclear scientist.
It could be pointed out to him that issues regarding waste disposal and even closing down the reactor after its useful life –normally 25 years- are still to be solved satisfactorily. Moreover why should people blindly believe the high priests of science? For example, did our framers know about the use of chemical pesticides for thousands of years? Then came the Green Revolution in the sixties and our agricultural experts from universities and agro-corporations taught our farmers the new technology.

About two decades later, a factory manufacturing pesticides in Bhopal leaked deadly methyl iso-cyanate and killed thousands in their sleep. Now how can you expect the common man to take your word for it? There is bound to be adverse reaction against science and technology. Some of it may be justified and a lot of it may be irrational fear. But the science establishment has not yet learnt to deal with it.

There are basically two reasons for this development and they have to be dealt with separately. One is the lack of information about science and technology among laymen, which naturally means increased effort in popularizing science. A number of organisations are finally realizing this.

The establishment of the Directorate of Environment and public Awareness within the Nuclear Power Corporation is an example of this. But the second reason is more complex and needs to be dealt with at different levels. That has to do with the alienation of the state and governance from the people. The marginalization felt today is so acute that anything that has to do with the government and comes from some office in New Delhi or a state capital immediately raises the hackles of many people.

The corruption, arrogance and later brute violence that is increasingly being associated with the state, repels many Indians. Scientists working with the government are tainted, by association with such an apparatus.

The solution is not within the ambit of scientists alone. It is an urgent national problem that requires effort from all of us. But scientists working in the government have to be more responsive to public opinion and do their best to win over their opponents. The haughty style of innuendo and ridicule and answering questions only when they are asked in the Lok Sabha has to change.

For example when I asked our nuclear scientists why they do not meet Dr Karnath and others and win them over, they had no answer. Their approach was limited to a few pamphlets, press statements and a debate five years back in Bangalore.

I think they should read Nehru’s speech carefully and emerge from their ivory towers.


The Sunday Observer, February 2-8, 1992
The Real Chanakya is lost in CHANAKYA, the TV Serial

Shivanand Kanavi

Many viewers are beginning to see red on seeing saffron in the popular TV serial, Chanakya. This, in turn, has sparked off a debate in the media about the serial’s historical authenticity. Some have voiced skepticism over whether a saffron flag had existed in the fourth century B.C. Others have implied that Dr. Chandraprakash Dwivedi, the writer-director-actor of the serial, is using it to propagate Hindutva.

The Controversy is unnecessary. The serial, set against a historical backdrop, is fictional. In fact, the controversy would not have arisen if Doordarshan had learnt a lesson from the dispute over the historical authenticity of The Sword Of Tipu Sultan, and made an announcement before every episode that the serial is fictional. But who was Chanakya or Kautilya? We know nothing about his personal life. We have some details about Chandragupta Maurya from Greek sources, who refer to him as Sandrokottos. But even these reports survive as fragmented quotations in other works- the original is untraceable. As D D Kosambi points out, as far as Chanakya is concerned, we only have legends fictionalized through the famous Sanskrit play, Mudra Rakshasa, written by Visakhadatta in the fourth century AD.

Today, all we know about Chanakya is only through his work, Arthashastra. This work was studied until the twelfth century and then was lost for many centuries. It was rediscovered in 1905, but only in parts. As R P Kangle, in his preface to Arthashastra – Part II (Bombay University Publication, Second edition, 1972) points out, no entire copy of Arthashastra has been recovered so far. The ancient Sanskrit used in the text is also open to many interpretations besides the copiers’ errors and interpolations. At the end of it all, Arthashastra is a treatise on political economy and does not say anything about the author direct. Thus anybody claiming to know about Chanakya the person should not be taken too seriously.

But having said all this, one cannot help but be impressed by the author of the Arthashastra. In fact, we have to be extremely thankful to him for providing invaluable information about the economy and politics of fourth century Magadh. He writes in a clear-cut, terse style with no scope for cant.

A quick glance at the Arthashastra yields rich insights into the state of Magadh. The title translates as “the science of material gain”. In the very first verse, the author acknowledges his debt to other ancient theoreticians and modestly says that he has done nothing more than compile and survey other masters’ views. He puts fourth the aim of the book as teaching the ruler “how to acquire and protect his Kingdom”.

The state Magadh appears very privileged indeed. It was the main land-clearing agency in the primeval forests surrounding pockets of population in the Indo-Gangetic plain and later also in the Deccan. It was the largest landowner and the principal owner of mines. Even a quick scan of the Arthashastra yields a rich insight into Magadh. After detailing all the precautions the ruler should take against corrupt state servants, Chanakya admits that it is as difficult to detect an official dipping into the state’s revenues, as it is to discover how much water has been drunk by swimming fish. The monarch, as he emerges in the Arthashastra, far from wallowing in luxury, was the most hard-working person in the kingdom, with his entire day strictly charted out with time set aside for sports, consultations with ministers and the head of the treasury and army, receiving secret reports from spies, interspersed by short spells of leisure.

Strife for the throne is treated as a minor occupational hazard of kingship. In fact, Chanakya quotes a predecessor’s axiom: “Princes, like crabs, are father eaters!” The Arthashastra never contemplates any interruption in the policy of state, no matter what happens in the palace. Externally the armed tribal oligarchies maintaining tribal exclusivity and some democratic traditions are considered serious obstacles to the absolutist state, both politically and ideologically. Ways to break up and subdue these tribal oligarchies are detailed in chanakyaneeti. Secret agents are not only used to spy on officials but also to monitor public pinion and even try to mould it through disinformation campaigns.

As far as the economy was concerned, Chanakya vigorously prompted direct settlements on waste lands and clearing forests for cultivation. Land was divided into leased land, on which taxes were collected, and vast crown lands, which the state cultivated. Productivity was a paramount consideration and if a lessee’s heirs did not cultivate the land properly then the lease was cancelled.

There was a form of social security for the aged, infirm, widows and pregnant women. The state maintained buffer stocks, not only of grain but also of essentials like timber, rope, tools, etc. to be distributed to the public during times of crises like famines or epidemics. Prostitution and wine production were legalised and taxed; in fact, there were separate ministries for them.

A more developed cash economy cannot be imagined. But all this was confined to the towns. The villages belonging to the vast crown lands were like camps of forced labour –increasing productivity was the only thing that mattered. The villagers were allowed no diversions of any kind.

The state also maintained a huge standing army estimated at half a million with handsome salary for the soldiers. But the cash was mopped up by the state by retailing the essentials to soldiers at inflated prices. The state monopoly in mining was crucial and Chanakya says, “the treasury is based on mining, army upon the treasury. He who has both can conquer the whole wide earth!”

In the event of financial emergency, methods similar to modern deficit financing was practiced. Chanakya also suggests alternative methods like state loans and National debts and even framing charges on rich merchants and making them pay in times of emergencies!

Chanakya certainly evokes interests among historians and students of political economy – but the Arthahshastra is of interest to students of Indian philosophy as well. In the very beginning of the Arthashastra, Chanakya enumerates what he considers as sciences worthy of being studied by the prince, who is training to be the future king. There he mentions philosophy; three (not four) Vedas, economics and science of politics as the four sciences to be studied diligently. In fact, he disagreed with the followers of Manu who regarded only the Vedas, economics and politics as the sciences. Chanakya extolled philosophy as the “lamp of all actions, support of all laws”.

But what is starling is what Chanakya considers as philosophy. He mentions only Samkhya, Yoga and Lokayata. Samkhya, it may be noted, is an intensely atheistic Indian trend which was naturalistic in outlook. Yoga here is not the Yoga of asanas but another name for Nyaya-Vaiseshika. This school extols doubt, debate, inference, syllogism and moreover, the atomic and molecular theory of matter. The third leg of his triad-- Lokayayata, is another name for Charvaka, a primitive materialistic trend. This trend was apparently highly respected by Chanakya, whereas later it was suppressed by followers of Manu. Lokayata now remains only in the polemics against it by its opponents and none of its works have been discovered. As Debiprasad Chattopdyaya noted, Chanakya while extolling philosophy and putting himself apart from the followers of Manu on this question, was actually extolling philosophy, in the broad sense of the term, and particularly those trends in Indian philosophy that had rational elements in them. Chanakya, thus, emerges from the Arthashastra as clear-thinking, bold, and rational theoretician.

Having said this, I would urge you all to watch the fictionalised Chanakya every Sunday morning and enjoy the histrionics of Chandraprakash Dwivedi and Co.