Why the God-damned NGOs should continue to crow at Koodankulam
It would be a euphemism to say that I hate non-governmental organisations. They are generally anti-development, self-righteous, obdurate, ill-liberal, conspiratorial, secretive and even plain deceptive: professing to champion the cause of the people while being in the pay of special interest groups. They usually have a problem for every solution. So it is good that Tamil Nadu government has cracked down on the busy bodies opposing the nuclear stations at Koodankulam.
A country with India's energy needs cannot depend on fossil fuel alone. Even the Church groups have fallen silent. The priests should never have meddled in the first place. If there were concerns about safety, the lay leadership of parishioners around the plant should have raised them. The Church should strictly keep out of the business of the state. The Central government has shown spine and sent some troublemakers packing.
That is a change from the shameful record of Union ministers putting personal agenda before Cabinet responsibility. In the name of public consultations, Jairam Ramesh, as environment minister, did immense damage to the propagation of genetically-modified crops which are necessary for India's food security, by casting doubts on the approval process. Earlier, as sports minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar tried to sabotage the Commonwealth Games from within.
But the nuisance value of the NGOs has its uses. Nuclear safety is too important an issue to be trusted to India's nuclear establishment. There is too much 'bhaichara' or mutual back scratching in every field in this country. The tendency is to kowtow to those in power and suck up to the bosses. Inconvenient people are often sidelined. In India's secretive nuclear establishment, a kind of Brahminism prevails. Few scientists would dare to break the Omerta code and be regarded as heretics.
Such an attitude can be lethal in an industry that should constantly worry about its dangers. As the Economist says, the governing principle in nuclear safety is 'defence in depth': seek first to prevent failure, then to correct failures not prevented, then control the consequences of failure and finally deal with emergencies beyond normal control.
To believe in the absolute safety of nuclear plants is to invite disaster. One should be forever vigilant not only to obvious dangers but hidden ones as well. If a particular safety device, for instance, has switched off, it is not enough to switch it on, but to ask why it went off in the first place, makes changes to procedures in the light of that experience and make sure that staff at other installations with similar devices know about the problem and how to solve it.
If a disaster like Fukushima could happen in as-safety-conscious Japan, what chance does India have with its 'chalta hai' attitude and wanton disregard for life? Japan has now moved regulation of nuclear plants from the industry department to the environment ministry. India must do likewise.
And the NGOs must continue to be a thorn in the side. They were wrong in opposing nuclear power. They can help by being fiercely watchful and ensuring that their worst fears do not come true.
More about Vivian FernandesVivian Fernandes is a senior journalist with nearly 30 years of practice, 19 of them in television, all of which he spent at TV18. Vivian’s last assignment was as executive editor of a book on India and China written by the founder of the Network 18 group, Mr Raghav Bahl. He has been an observer of Indian business and politics, and had reported on economic policy making as reporter, chief of Delhi bureau of correspondents and economic policy editor. Vivian has traveled abroad with Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. He was also reported on the World Trade Organization’s trade talks from Cancun, Hong Kong and Geneva. He continues his association with the Network18 group, but not as an employee.
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