The German Hand. And the Doctor’s Googly

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This is called moron management. Instead of debating nuclear safety, India’s Prime Minister is trotting out conspiracies

By Nityanand Jayaraman

Illustration: Anand Naorem

AS SPIN doctors go, the UPA and its media advisers have proved to be pretty good. But as the elected government of the world’s largest democracy, their attitude towards public debate on issues of importance such as nuclear or GMO safety comes across as churlish, vengeful and authoritarian.

People who believe that the anti-nuclear struggle in Koodankulam is instigated and funded by foreign NGOs are morons. Our reticent prime minister doesn’t fall in that category; he doesn’t really believe that the protests are US-instigated. He’s just saying that because media- and moron-management is all about framing one’s message. In cognitive linguistics, a frame refers to the set of values, beliefs, experiences and mental models that people use to perceive or make sense of a situation. Fukushima invokes images of a catastrophe, not of electricity and prosperous communities; Hiroshima of a nuclear holocaust; Bhopal of a chemical disaster; politicians of corruption and so on.

Since the agitation began in Koodankulam in August 2011, the UPA has been on the backfoot. Despite claims of convincing the agitators, the government’s audience was never the agitators. It was a battle to win public minds and quell the dissent against the power plant. In this battle, they have had to contend with the dominant frame linking nuclear power to catastrophe.

It is virtually impossible to convince a sane community to accept a nuclear power plant in its backyard.

APJ Abdul Kalam claims that the nuclear plant is 100 percent safe. But then people want to know why the Centre is hell-bent on indemnifying nuclear equipment suppliers in the event of an accident. Considering that these reactors are fail-safe, couldn’t Kalam’s considerable charm and scientific skills be deployed to convince the suppliers to accept full liability?

The lack of transparency has not helped either. Liability clauses negotiated with the Russians would point to the level of confidence that the Russians have about their own equipment’s safety. The Centre’s Experts Group has refused to divulge these details. Neither have they provided information as basic as the total quantity of nuclear waste generated, how it will be handled or the quantum of radioactive emissions from the plant.

If operationalised, the six proposed nuclear power plants will discharge 42 billion litres (sufficient to meet all water needs of 21 crore people) of hot water into the sea every day. The agitating fisherfolk may not speak Queen’s English, but they are not bereft of common sense. They are concerned about the sub-lethal effects on marine flora and fauna caused by the release of such large quantities of hot water. Dr Mark Chernaik, scientific adviser to Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide-US, a global network of environmental lawyers and activists, reviewed Koodankulam’s Environmental Impact Assessment report and the response of the government’s Expert Group. According to him, “Neither contains an adequate assessment of the impacts to marine life of cooling water (thermal) discharges.”

The agitating fishermen may not Speak Queen’s English, but they are not bereft of common sense

Citing case studies from China and Brazil, Dr Chernaik concludes that “The impacts to marine life of thermal discharges are indirect, yet still very substantial: small increases of the temperature of marine water changes water chemistry, including reductions in dissolved oxygen levels that can deleteriously impact fisheries. Also, fish may be able to migrate to avoid localised temperature shifts, but their food sources (sponges, algae, and small invertebrates) are fixed and cannot.”

RATHER THAN respond to these substantive issues of science and safety, the UPA has deployed its spin doctors to change the frame. It begins with the PM announcing to the media that India’s nuclear programme is being derailed by NGOs funded by the Americans. Next, an innocent and unsuspecting German tourist, Sonntag Rainer Hermann, is picked up from his budget hotel at midnight, and deported on suspicion that he was illegally diverting funds to the Koodankulam campaign.

Led by the nose, the media gobbles it up unthinkingly. One newspaper calls Hermann “the brains” behind the campaign. Another newspaper admits that he was deported only on suspicion and justifies that suspicion by adding that he “was staying in a small room that does not even have a western-style closet or air conditioning”. The articles are based on anonymous sources, and unproven allegations and replete with defamatory statements. A simple enquiry would have revealed that Hermann is a harmless backpacker, having arrived just a month ago from Bangkok. Like many Germans, he is a nature lover, and has a healthy scepticism of nuclear energy. To learn that this innocent tourist was harassed makes a mockery of our Athithi Devo Bhava claims.

If the behaviour of our politicians was shameful, the total capitulation of our media to the police version was downright frightening. None in the media seems concerned with the Gestapo style pick-up and the lack of due process. If Hermann was guilty of illegally diverting funds to any campaign, why was the government in a hurry to deport him?

The 24×7 keepers of India’s moral conscience were not to be left behind. “Are NGOs in India accountable?” was the subject of a debate on a popular television channel. The nuclear safety debate was effectively replaced by a debate on NGO accountability. UPA’s media managers had succeeded for the time being. Koodankulam was delinked from Fukushima; a fresh xenophobic frame was introduced linking the protests to a mysterious foreign hand.

A successful media strategy does not require truth, logic or evidence. Even if the PM were to retract his statement, and no evidence surfaces in the coming months, the damage is done and the objectives achieved.

Where is our sense of history? Any criticism of the nuclear programme has always been projected as foreign-instigated. In February 2011, Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan blamed “foreign powers” for the Jaitapur protests. Chavan even claimed that a “European man” had done the rounds of Konkan, instigating poor and innocent Indians to turn anti-nuke. The Kaiga incident where 55 workers drank tritium-laced water was blamed on foreign saboteurs.

The UPA’s witch hunt has little to do with concerns over the erosion of Indian democracy by foreign powers. Why would an agency as lofty as the PMO go to the media with such allegations, when it has all the powers to stop any wrongdoing?

THERE IS no question that NGOs should be transparent about their sources and use of funds — Indian or foreign. SP Udayakumar, the convener of the anti-nuclear struggle group, has declared that the income and expenditure of the six-month protest are an open book for any interested person to inspect. Why isn’t the government or the media inspecting it before making these allegations? Why have we not been presented with a shred of evidence to back these defamatory allegations? Why is the government shying away from conducting a democratic debate on nuclear safety in an honourable and transparent manner?

India’s nuclear programme has had considerable foreign influence for years now. In passing the Nuclear Liability Act, our PM made no secret of his passionate lobbying on behalf of foreign nuclear equipment suppliers. In January 2011, former DAE secretary Anil Kakodkar put his mouth where the money is, when he told the Marathi daily Sakaalthat “We also have to keep in mind the commercial interests of foreign countries and… companies … America, Russia and France were the countries that we made mediators in these efforts to lift sanctions, and hence, for the nurturing of their business interests, we made deals with them for nuclear projects.”

Even in Koodankulam, it is public knowledge that a foreign hand is at play. That hand is Russian.

Nityanand Jayaraman is an independent journalist. 
nity682@gmail.com

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