Archive | June, 2013

NDTV’s We The People – On the Uttarakhand floods

Last Sunday, I appeared on NDTV’s We The People hosted by Barkha Dutt, to talk about the recent floods in Uttarakhand and on the “eco-insensitive” nature of politics in India. Here’s a clip of the comments I made during the show. You can watch the full recording at the NDTV website.

I also had the opportunity to underscore the same points during an interview by Maseeh Rahman of The Guardian.

But most analysts believe restricting the number of pilgrims would be political suicide. “The desire to worship at Kedarnath is almost like an irresistible force,” said Pavan Srinath, of the Chennai-based thinktank Takshashila Foundation. “Despite the tragedy, people are already talking about when they will undertake the sacred journey. No government can bar the devout from the Himalayas.”

Not all experts are in agreement. Srinath maintains that the devastation would have been even more widespread if the reservoir of the region’s biggest dam at Tehri had not contained a significant volume of the deluge. “Dams can also prevent disasters,” he said. “The critical issue is not dams, but proper dam management. In India, we just don’t have a culture of public safety.”
[The Guardian, June 28, 2013]

The comment the regulation of pilgrims, however, isn’t just about political feasibility – but about policy realism. In all likelihood, a strict regulation of official pilgrims to the holy sites will lead to a large number of illegal traffic of tourists and pilgrims, with much less safety.

Also, this blogger thinks that it’s more likely that the Tehri dam was empty and capable of receiving flood waters more by circumstance than by intent – nevertheless, it demonstrates the positive role well-managed dams can play in disaster risk reduction.

Related posts: Not every disaster is man-made | We are still vulnerable to climate variability

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No food security without sanitation

Debate has been raging on the Food Security Bill in India for quite a while now, at least in the English press and online commentary. Until recently, the role of sanitation in malnutrition (and by extension, in food security) was largely missing from the public discourse. This prompted me to write an article in Pragati back in May:

While the National Food Security Bill proponents have been looking at nutrition as a ‘gross’ problem which requires more input in the form of cheaper food, the reality is that it is largely a ‘net’ problem. Far too much nutrition is lost to recurring diarrhoea, dysentery, persistent worm infestations and chronic environmental enteropathy linked to open defecation and a lack of sanitation. People in 69 percent of rural Indian households continue to defecate in the open. While most of the urban population uses toilets, little human waste gets collected and treated properly.

It is ludicrous that sanitation has not been made a priority in development policies addressing malnutrition. While the official government of India position has always been that malnutrition is ‘complex, multidimensional and inter-generational’, the interventions have largely been about targeted and non-targeted nutritional interventions, subsidized healthcare, and with token mention of clean drinking water supply and sanitation. This is like giving dysentery patients subsidized food and medicine, and asking them to eat more, and stopping the medical advice there. In the absence of focus on sanitation, what we have is taxpayer-funded diarrhea and little else. [Think Sanitation, Not Food Security | Pragati – May 2013 PDF]

It has been encouraging to see that the popular discourse has changed significantly in the last month, with sanitation and clean water getting  due recognition for their role in nutrition and food security. Several excellent articles have been written on the subject in that time.

Business Standard published an editorial early in June, questioning the assumptions behind the food security bill and arguing against rushing it through, while citing a lack of sanitation as one of several important reasons behind malnutrition.

Arvind Virmani wrote in the Times of India on how we need a ‘hunger elimitation’ act coupled with a strong policy focus on clean water, sanitation and communication about good nutrition instead of a gargantuan food security bill. Dr. Virmani, a former advisor to the Planning Commission and a Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India, has written extensively on the topic even in the past as well.

Adi Narayan wrote a well-researched piece in Bloomberg on how extra food means nothing to stunted kids with bad water.

Robert Chambers (most famous for his development of Participatory Rural Appraisals) co-authored an article with Gregor von Medeazza in the Economic & Political Weekly on sanitation and stunting in India, on the link between sanitation and undernutrition in the country.

And most recently, Sadanand Dhume also critiqued the ‘hunger games’ in India, calling instead for a fix of the woeful public sanitation in the country.

Much of the credit for this goes to some excellent research done by Dean Spears, currently heading a start-up RICE Institute in Uttar Pradesh. While there is a whole body of research on sanitation and health, Spears catalysed the field with original analyses of large, disparate datasets.

All said, it is unlikely that anything will stop the current government from their pursuit of this ill-considered bill. One can but hope that in the long run, sanitation occupies a larger portion of the public mindspace when it comes to matters of nutrition, health and food security.

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We are still vulnerable to climate variability

Samanth Subramaniam writes in UAE’s The National on the floods in Uttarakhand and quotes me on the link between flooding and climate change.

But Pavan Srinath, a policy researcher at the Chennai-based Takshashila Institution, who has written extensively about climate change, told The National that cause and effect were difficult to establish in such situations.

“Theoretically, if you mess around in mountain systems, you can increase chances of landslides or floods, yes,” Mr Srinath said. “The question is: How much does the risk go up? We don’t know that yet.”

Similarly, Mr Srinath hesitated to draw a link between global climate change patterns and the early monsoon rain that triggered Uttarakhand’s floods.

“One of the theories is that global warming increases the intensity of the monsoon rains,” Mr Srinath said. He acknowledged that climate change was causing “extreme weather events” but argued that it was difficult to conclusively prove that these floods were one such event.

“I would say, instead, that our towns haven’t even adapted to regular variations in climates, let alone climate change-induced ones,” Mr Srinath said. “Really, that’s the conversation we should be having.”
[Samanth Subramaniam, The National]

I cannot stress the last point enough. The sad truth is, even without climate change, our towns, cities and villages are deeply vulnerable to the natural variability in climate. Be it droughts that hit parts of India like clockwork every few years, or how Assam or Orissa get inundated by floods regularly – we see constant evidence that we aren’t even resilient to what we ought to be. We should be talking about adapting to local climes, to variability and finally to climate change. Talking excessively of climate change alone shifts the focus instead to mitigation, to cutting greenhouse gas emissions and a host of other issues that serve as distractions.

For a nation that is one-sixth of the world’s population, we have but contributed to 3% of greenhouse gases emitted globally since the industrial revolution. Our most important goals need to be of climate adaptation, and building disaster resilience and good emergency services.

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Not every disaster is man-made

Uttarakhand has been a scene of unfolding horror for the past four days, and is a human tragedy occuring at a scale that is staggering. For many people in India, it is also a disaster that hits home as millions have visited Uttarakhand on pilgrimage and have seen the places that we now see on the television with dread.

The scale of damage due to floods is not yet known but is certainly immense. The loss of human lives above all, and the destruction of public and private property will likely haunt the residents for many years. The loss of lives is currently estimated in the hundreds and can go up to the thousands or even more, given the large number of people currently reported as missing. A disaster such as this requires rapid, thorough rescue and relief operations. By most accounts, the army and the state officials are doing an admirable job of it. Afterwards comes the time for rebuilding and sombre reflection, as well as thorough investigations into the causes for the disaster, the amplifiers, and the role of human error, malfeasance and failures.

What do we have instead? Loud war cries that the disaster in Uttarakhand was man-made, and that political parties gave in to various mafias and increased the scale of destruction unleashed upon much of Uttarakhand.

One human factor that can be brought into this discussion as a causative agent is climate change, but only with great care. While anthropogenic climate change has been established as a very likely cause for the increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events in India and elsewhere in the world, there are two strong caveats to this link. First, it is impossible to say whether an individual event has a greenhouse gas or a warm climate footprint. This is the case for everything from Hurricane Sandy to the cloudburst over Uttarakhand. Second, empirical evidence for the relationship between the monsoon and climate change is still very limited. There are many theories on what climate change is likely to do to the Indian summer monsoon, but much of it is still unknown. While the summer monsoon hit the coast of Kerala around the usual date this year, its march over the long leagues from Kanya Kumari to the Himalayas was exceptionally quick. The most honest, if uncomfortable, statement is that we don’t know if climate change caused the cloudburst over Uttarakhand, nor do we know that climate change could make such events more frequent or intense.

The reasons for declaring the disaster as man-made were given in a Down to Earth home page feature as the increase in hydel projects in the state, roads and infrastructure destabilising the mountains, and development increasing the frequency and intensity of landslides.

Is any of this true? On the first count of hydroelectric power projects and excessive dam-building in Uttarakhand, the reality is far from the rhetoric. While it is true that there are ambitious plans for dam construction in the state, especially on the Ganga and its tributaries, very few projects have actually been implemented and are operational. The map below from SANDRP shows that on the Ganga, only 16 hydel projects had been commissioned, 13 were under construction, and 54 were proposed as of a year or two ago. The picture has not changed rapidly since then. We can do better than blaming widespread floods on paper dams.

Map_of_Hydroelectric_Projects_in_Bhagirathi_and_Alaknanda_Basin

Source: http://sandrp.in/basin_maps/

On all other counts of “development” causing or worsening the disaster, the litmus test is the impact at Kedarnath. The holy pilgrimage site of Kedarnath is a valley on the banks of the river Mandakini that lies high above much of the upper Gangetic basin at 3600 metres above sea-level [See Kedarnath on Google Maps]. Above it is wildnerness and  inhabitable mountains, and motorable roads are yet to reach the place. Pilgrims drive up to Gauri Kund, and trek up the last 14 kilometres, climbing some six thousand feet in the process. There are no roads, bridges or extensive artificial interventions around Kedarnath, except for the temple and surrounding hotels and housing that has sprung up.

In spite of this, Kedarnath has been among the worst hit areas in this disaster. Floodwaters swept into the settlement, bringing with them vast amounts of debris and cutting off access for about 8,000 people from the rest of the region.

We have to live in an evidence-free world to say that the horrific natural disaster that struck Kedarnath was man-made. Kedarnath, as the map below shows, lies high above even proposed dams and has only the most minimal amounts of development. It is the benchmark by which one can say that the flooding in Uttarakhand has been more prolific than any other in living memory, above and beyond any “man-made” effects.

Mandakini150411

Source: http://sandrp.in/basin_maps/

All this has been said in full recognition of the fact that Uttarakhand has always been profoundly vulnerable to flooding, and that there has always been a high risk of natural disasters. The notion that such floods could happen some day was far from unknown. The hope that it may not happen to us or in our lifetimes was as free of evidence as some of the claims mentioned above. Places between Rudraprayag and Rishikesh on the Ganga have evidently not built any resilience against an event such as this.

Unfortunately, the value for human life in India still remains disturbingly low. It is specious to singularly blame governments for this, without also pointing fingers to all of us as a society. And it is certainly better to reflect on how we can build resilience to natural disasters than to think in terms of false choices such as “Is it just another flash flood or is it a man made disaster?“.

Update:
Read this article in Kannada, translated by Vikas Argod.
I subsequently participated in a show of We The People on NDTV making similar points. Do take a look.

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Economic conservatism vs. social conservatism

Mint has a great editorial today on the Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological conflicts:

The BJP needs to get over this dichotomy. The bulk of Indians today are concerned with livelihood issues. Since the mid-1990s, cultural nationalism of the kind championed by Advani at one point has lost salience. It is time for the BJP to transform itself into a party of economic conservatism, one that argues for free markets, secure property rights and a minimalist state. India cannot afford to have a party in power that does not pay attention to sound macroeconomic management. [Livemint, June 11, 2013]

There are a few things that need to be elaborated on here. First, there is some subjectivity in the application of labels like conservatism and liberalism for economic philosophies, even before we bring in social concerns. There’s fiscal conservatism on one end, which advocates for healthy public finance with minimal debt spending, and moderate, balanced government budgets. There’s economic liberalism on the other end, focusing on strong property rights, a large role for free markets and individual action, limiting the state’s role to the provision of public goods and the correction of market failures. A lot of fiscal conservatives do believe in economic liberalism and a free market economy, but the two concepts are not necessarily wedded together.

Second, over and above these, there’s the school of liberal conservatism, that blends fiscal conservatism, economic liberalism and a socially conservative outlook. Social conservatives are often driven by the understanding that society (and institutions) are inherently fragile, precious and require safe-guarding. They believe that for social harmony, a certain amount of consistency needs to be maintained in the social fabric. They believe in preserving the ties that bind people together: family, religion and customs. Whether or not one agrees with this worldview, or be willing to compromise on individual liberty and justice for the cause of greater social harmony, there is certainly a political space for social conservatives to occupy in any healthy democracy.

In most rich nations, there are major political parties with the aforementioned liberal conservative base. The Republicans in the United States, the Conservatives in United Kingdom, the Christian Democratic Union in Germany are all examples of the same. Several of these liberal conservative parties are in power right now around the world. Thanks to this, people often assume that those who espouse the cause of social conservatism also care about economic freedom. Consequently, there are frequently calls for the Bharatiya Janata Party to do the same, and there is a lot of disappointment when they don’t.

Economic liberalism and social conservatism go hand in hand in richer nations as their social stability is dependent on them continuing to be rich and prosperous. This is not the same for a growing country like India. As the Mint editorial rightly states, “Embracing free markets and its cognate political position—liberalism —is bound to weaken cultural nationalism.” Economic freedom and growth are very likely to empower new groups of people (like Dalits), chafe at established social orders, and overturn social mores – be it women working during late hours or filing for divorce more often.

So can the BJP transform from a socially and economically conservative party to one that socially conservative but economically liberal? How will it chart the course to get there, given that the ordinal axes that explain Indian political ideologies are very different from western ones? Or is a new, yet-to-emerge political formation the best vehicle to champion the liberal conservative cause? Or, is fiscal conservatism minus a support for free markets and property rights a compromise platform that the BJP can take up?

The coming months and years will tell us.

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Fukushima – feat, not folly.

The latest news on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown that took place in March 2011 came in a few days ago:

Now the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has drawn on 80 scientists from 18 countries to produce a draft report that concludes: “Radiation exposure following the nuclear accident at Fukushima-Daiichi did not cause any immediate health effects. It is unlikely to be able to attribute any health effects in the future among the general public and the vast majority of workers.” [The Age, emphasis added.]

The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) is yet to share the full report with the public on its website, but news outlets appear to have received early drafts from them. After a full two years of study, the study appears to conclude that ‘No radiation-related deaths or acute effects have been observed among nearly 25,000 workers involved at the accident site.

While this may sound contrary to the popular discourse on the “unmitigated disaster” that was Fukushima, this is hardly the first report indicating negligible health risks from nuclear radiation. As the same article mentions, the World Health Organisation had conducted a study which came out with similar results in February this year, finding but marginal increases in cancer risks among the most affected – while finding no evidence of increased miscarriages, stillbirths or more extreme effects of radiation exposure at the site.

The UN and the WHO are both organisations that are quite careful about health risks and human hazards (even erring too far on the side of caution in some cases) and cannot easily be dismissed as institutions that underplay nuclear radiation risks. The evidence flies in the face of initial hysterical claims of widespread hazards (including the spread of radiation through stratospheric wind systems!). Individuals like Mark Lynas have been steadily debunking most of the myths and bad science that has surfaced after the incident. Among other things, it seems like the impact of the forced evacuation and relocation of the elderly Japanese population around the nuclear reactor site might have had a larger health impact than all the nuclear radiation.

Some fear was generated last year when scientists found a significant number of mutant butterflies in the vicinity of Fukushima. While the increased mutations were likely a result of radiation exposure, the results are not of a kind that can be directly extrapolated to humans. Molecular biologists have extensively studied mutations and the effect of mutagens in various organisms, and the dose required for a human being are several orders of magnitude higher than what is sufficient to cause mutations in small invertebrate species like butterflies. Mammals also have more robust DNA error correction mechanisms that check mutations and are able to delete and remake mutated sequences of the genetic code. Further, it also helps to remember that all of us have numerous mutations – likely in every single cell in the human body – but only a small number of them cause changes in minor cell behaviour, a smaller number resulting in significant cellular changes, and an even smaller number resulting in tumours. A minuscule number of these are fatal or hereditary.

The reports by UN and WHO provide sound evidence for the minimal nature of impacts due to radiation exposure from the meltdown and ought to allay most fears on the subject, but unfortunately, they fail to do so.

Closer home, misinformation about Fukushima has had an enormous impact on Kudankulam on the southern coast of India. Fears about a Fukushima-like disaster have fueled resistance to the local nuclear reactor for over two years now. A quote from a woman at the nearby fishing village of Idinthakarai from 2012 is most telling:

“We never listened to Udayakumar Sir when he told us about the radiation dangers, till Fukusima happened. I saw it on TV and later on videos shown by our leaders. I realised that the fears were not far-fetched. It can happen to us also,” [The Telegraph, Feb 7, 2012]

Make no mistake, the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 was a disaster of epic proportions, killing over 15,000 people and causing estimated damages of about $235 Billion dollars. But this was due to the tsunami, and not the nuclear meltdown in the TEPCO plant at Fukushima. However, the two were fungible for villagers 7,000 kilometres away in Tamil Nadu and it was taken advantage of by the local agitators and activists. It worked as effectively as it did because people had a living, recent memory of the Indian Ocean tsunami that caused widespread death and destruction in the region. Never mind that the Kudankulam nuclear reactor site was protected from the worst of it precisely because of its well-chosen location, sheltered from much of the open ocean by the island of Sri Lanka – as well as coral reefs and offshore islands.

Equally, one cannot claim that the Fukushima reactor meltdown had no elements of risk mismanagement and human error behind it, there were indeed many lapses on the part of the owner TEPCO and the Japanese government. BUT. I stand by my old claim that the damage control efforts after the emergency were nothing short of a feat of great human excellence and engineering. It is also telling that in spite of regulatory oversights and lapses in safety planning, the effects of the meltdown were minimal. This underscores the success of decades-long global obsession with nuclear reactor safety and security, which has resulted in a nuclear industry that is likely far safer than most other forms of energy production. The chronic safety risks from a nuclear power plant are nil today, and acute safety risks have the best-designed emergency response systems that human ingenuity has been able to develop – and are more than up to the challenge.

Once we stop listening to those trying to cause fear and doubt and look instead at hard evidence, the reality of nuclear risk and safety is quite apparent.

Bonus: I never tire of promoting Randall Munroe’s excellent radiation dose chart. It gives you a great picture of the natural ionising radiation that we live with, all the time. Also, read the Acorn‘s excellent post from just after the Fukushima incident in 2011.

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