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Everyone’s connected

india Updated: Feb 10, 2010 00:03 IST
Highlight Story

The heat generated in the media on climate change issues has been put off by a cold winter. However, R.K. Pachauri of The Energy Research Institute (TERI), the leading climate change expert has suffered some burns. Allegations of financial dealings with corporations that are the biggest polluters and violators of good environmental practices have left him groping for cover. In his defence, he makes many separations — of himself as an individual from TERI the organisation, which he heads and of TERI from the other corporate bodies with which it has partnerships — financial or technical. While these distinctions may be legally valid, the hybrid knowledge created by the coupling of expert institutions and commercial organisations flows freely between these entities and into our lives through the axiom of public purpose.

Last year, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh was forced to seek the resignation of P. Abraham, the chairperson of the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) that recommends environment clearance to hydropower projects as he was ‘found’ to be on the Board of Directors of power companies whose projects his committee had cleared. In 2007, environment clearance was granted to M/s Panduranga Timblo Industries by an EAC on mining chaired by M.L. Majumdar, a retired IAS official. At the time of grant of clearance, Majumdar was himself a director of four mining companies.

India’s Biological Diversity Act, 2002, has set up a panel under the National Biodiversity Authority to screen applications for access to biological resources. The committee has approved many applications from government-affiliated bodies such as the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, NRC on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants. In one of the meetings in 2007, 126 approvals for Intellectual Property Rights from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) were approved. This is when one of the CSIR Emeritus Scientists was on the committee.

In October 2009, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) gave its nod to the introduction of Bt Brinjal. Prior to its decision, the GEAC had set up an expert committee for their considered opinion and the GEAC’s decision is based on the recommendations of this committee. The expert committee had on it Mathura Rai, Director, Indian Institute of Vegetable Research (IIVR). Among other people, the committee had Ananda Kumar from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute who is a Bt Brinjal developer himself. These have all been cases categorised as ‘conflict of interest’, though the credentials of these panel members at the time of selection included their specialisations and affiliations.

These authorities, committees and expert bodies are set up ostensibly with the objectives of good governance marked by transparency, efficiency and objectivity. Once selected to these committees, we expect these members to apply only their neutral, technical judgement on matters of environment and human well-being. Our governance rests on the belief that these individual representatives of institutions can or will operate in a realm of knowledge that is untouched by their own social and political contexts. Such an inert realm does not exist.

The phrase ‘conflict of interest’ implies that it does. It makes us believe that these alloys of knowledge can be segregated so that pure expertise will become available for public purpose. From these combinations of individuals and regulations we expect sanitised, unmotivated, conflict-free development decisions.

Efforts such as what is described above are underway to set up a National Environment Protection Authority and a National Green Tribunal. The search is on for suitable candidates who will occupy these decisive spaces of power. With better processes, we may succeed in finding scientists who have no corporate connections, administrators with no blue-chip stocks or jurists with no record of accepting generous favours from clients to populate these new institutions. But can their subjective knowledge deliver any better governance than ours can?

Manju Menon is a PhD student at Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University,and Kanchi Kohli is member of Kalpavriksh Environmental Action Group.

The views expressed by the author are personal.