About the Author - Dr. Sanjib Baruah
Dr. Sanjib Baruah is currently professor of political science at Bard College in New York, United States.
His articles on the Lower Subansiri Mega Dam projects is an ey opener of not only for the authorities constructing the project and also for the common people of North-East India.
He is the author of many books like "India against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality", "Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of Northeast India", etc.
The mobilization of a variety of highly credentialed experts to settle the controversy over the Lower Subansiri hydropower project reminds me of an American Doonesbury comic strip. It features Stewie, a young researcher, who is frustrated with his calculator because it wouldn’t produce the ‘right’ answer. Stewie grumbles that he can’t get the ‘pesky scientific facts’ to ‘line up behind [his] beliefs.’ Some of our decision-makers seem to be behaving like Stewie. They are looking for experts whose opinions can be interpreted as being in line with what officials consider to be the ‘right answer’ to the questions raised about the Lower Subansiri hydropower project.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that a North American comic strip speaks to our present predicament in Assam. The Doonesbury strip was a comment on former US president George W. Bush’s attitudes toward scientific truths vis-à-vis a number of issues including climate change and evolution. (Many of Bush’s Christian fundamentalist supporters are ‘creationists’ who believe in the Bible’s story of creation and reject Darwin’s theory of evolution). Thus an authority figure dressed in a white lab coat, based on the real-life character of the science adviser at the Bush White House, appears in the scene. He advises the confused Stewie on "situational science" which he explains is "about respecting both sides of a scientific argument, not just the ones supported by facts." The "situational science adviser" then lists a number of "controversies" where "situational science" could be useful, among them the "evolution controversy,""the global-warming controversy" and the "pesticides controversy."
In the comic strip cartoonist Garry Trudeau uses the term ‘controversy’ ironically with reference to subjects on which there are well-established scientific truths. However, we live in a world where knowledge controversies have become a familiar part of public debates in many parts of the world. Such knowledge controversies are examples of what Dutch social theorist Annemarie Mol calls ontological politics.
Controversies about the dangers of the "mad cow disease" or what scientists call Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in the UK, and other recent panics about food safety in Europe, are examples of ontological politics. What is common about these controversies is that significant sections of the public challenge the knowledge claims of scientists and technologists that inform government decisions and practices. While a few years ago the authority of science and the reassurances provided by technocrats may have been enough to reassure the public about "acceptable risks," they now fail to convince those that are affected by policy decisions informed by expert knowledge. The debate on the Lower Subansiri project is best seen as a knowledge controversy - an example of ontological politics.
In these cases, the first-hand experience of citizens and the vernacular knowledge generated by that experience are in tension with what is regarded as authoritative science by decision-makers. They fail to allay public concerns. German sociologist Ulrich Beck explains this as a characteristic feature of "risk society." Experts in the context of such knowledge controversies fail to convince the public that the risks involved in a new product or in an infrastructural project are "acceptable."
At the root of the controversy over the Lower Subansiri project are two sets of tensions (a) between first-hand experience and vernacular knowledge on the one hand, and expert knowledge that informs government decisions on the other; and (b) between expert knowledge produced by one group of well-credentialed experts familiar with the local context, and by a second group of equally well-credentialed experts based at institutions in the Indian heartland, but viewed locally as experts who have few stakes in the region.
A number of factors account for these tensions.
First, the people of the Brahmaputra valley have known floods in a way that very few other people in the world have. Second, the experience of the earthquake of 1950 and the catastrophic floods that followed are deeply etched in the collective memory of the people of the Brahmaputra Valley. A research team studying flood adaptation in the Brahmaputra Valley found that even after six decades villagers affected by those catastrophic floods remember them as ‘Pahar Bhanga Pani’ [hill-destroying floodwaters] and ‘Bolia Pani’ [floodwaters driven by madness]. It is hardly surprising that hydropower plants in the mountains that surround the valley would evoke a raw sense of danger and foreboding in Assam.
In the words of an Assamese engineer who has had a long career building and managing hydropower plants in the region, experts from India’s premier water research institute IIT-Rourkee, "have not seen the earthquake-induced landslides of 1950 . . . when hundreds and thousands of trees floating downstream covered nearly the entire Brahmaputra river. They were not witness to that extraordinary spectacle. How can they say with certitude what a future disaster on the Subansiri might bring?"
Third, the experience of devastating man-made floods, most likely caused by water released from recently built upstream hydropower plants like that on the Kurichhu river in Bhutan, a tributary of Assam’s Manas river, and on the Ranganadi river in Arunachal Pradesh have only added to this anxiety. In the absence of transparent public inquires about these floods and reassurances that they won’t occur again, the people of Assam have few option but to take them as harbingers of a calamitous future.
It is extremely unlikely that the authority of experts would at this point be able to bridge the trust gap that has developed regarding the Lower Subansiri project. But we should be glad that we do not have an "unconstrained technocracy" like that in China where as the Economist magazine pointed out last year, "all but one of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee are engineers." Unconstrained technocracy, says the Economist has not been a guarantee of "good ideas or decisions" in cases such as the Three Gorges dam, the SARS epidemic or the high-speed rail network.
But democracies can find ways of engaging with ontological politics that autocracies cannot. However, to find a way out of the impasse on Lower Subansiri the authorities will have to go beyond dogmatically asserting the authority of the elected government or of the law.
Fortunately, in a democracy people who fear the potential adverse impact of a government decision has the ability to organize itself into a public. The memories of devastating earthquakes, the lived experience of frequent floods, and the knowledge of scientists, technologists and intellectuals deeply engaged with the region, have constituted an extremely well-informed regional public around the issue of Lower Subansiri. Indian democracy has to find a way of meaningfully engaging that public.