Masterly inactivity – Scientific policy in the time of Vandana Shiva

ShreedharSasikumarTo be a government regulator is to  be a killjoy. One day you are cutting out all mentions of ‘virgin’ in a film and the next day you are designing Form 3A to allow appeal of Circular I-58 to be filed in Window 3-G. And it is a thankless job. Cutting out that flash of side-boob means dashing the hopes of ‘adolescent’ men everywhere. Leaving it in means a hundred angry letters from parents fearing the corruption of their children.

The thanklessness is all the starker in an increasingly shrill and polarised political environment where the potential impact of any decision is harangued on Twitter and second-guessed on twenty-four-hour news channels. One is reminded of Humphrey Appleby’s advice to Hacker on the secret of successful governments in a democracy – ‘masterly inactivity’, that is, appearing concerned by everything, while doing nothing at all. Governments and bureaucracies as a result, often tend towards the ‘precautionary’ principle’, that is, an action or policy is best not undertaken unless it can be proven that the policy is not harmful. Since one can never prove a negative, however, this can often be a recipe for ‘analysis paralysis’.

WorkSafeAntiSexualHarassmentWhile masterly inactivity might be a path to reelection, it can seem an unconscionable course in the face of burning need for social improvements. Each day the new miracle drug goes unapproved is a day of despair for uncounted patients. Each regulatory hoop is an opportunity and resource wasted for a fledgling business. And how can we feed the growing populations of the world without technological innovations like genetically modified seeds, an issue discussed at some length in Seeds of Doubt, the New Yorker article on GMO foods and one of their principal critics, Dr. Vanadana Shiva.

Going by newspaper discussion, an official evaluating the approval of a genetically altered seed is faced with one of two roles. Either play the part of an unconcerned ‘Nero fiddling in the face of starving millions’ or adopt the role of a pillager and rapist of the earth and nature. But this is an obviously false dichotomy, a simplification similar to Bush-II’s ‘You are either with us or against us’.

For starters the hysteria of political discourse means we are constantly making mountains out of mole-hills. Actionable questions on GMO policy are rarely a choice between starvation and pillage and more commonly along the lines of whether the testing period for moleclule xyz should be six months or nine months. When we approach narrow specific questions on actions we can take (or not), it might be feasible to construct reasonable experiments to empirically evaluate costs against benefits. On the other hand, if we see ‘slippery slopes’ everywhere, the argument quickly evolves to untestable beliefs. We can reasonably design a laboratory or field experiment to test if Bt Cotton is resistant to certain pests. It is near impossible to prove one way or the other if this is an attempt by man to play God or to investigate a vast conspiracy to enslave the developing world.

Hysteria also breeds polarisation and dishonesty which makes an accurate cost-benefit evaluation near impossible since ‘facts’ are twisted by both sides of the debate. Monsanto’s scientists might publish reports that show how laboratory enhanced seeds can increase production. But that report must be placed in the context of an India, where forty years after the Green Revolution, per-capita food intake in calories has actually decreased. GMO seeds might be helping the U.S. produce more grain than any other country, but its effect on world hunger is indirect at best  when over half the grain production is used as animal feed. The now famous images of rotting food grains in PDS godowns stand as a stark illustration that our problems have more to do with allocation than production. Human hunger is unlikely to be solved in a lab and companies and researchers hurt their credibility by ‘cherry-picking’ favorable results or outright paying for studies. Monsanto’s ‘Who We Are’ page proclaims a commitment to farmers and sustainable agriculture but little about the primary commitment of any for-profit company, that is, the incomes of its shareholders and employees. Overly grandiose promises and the suppressing of any discussion of the valid long-term costs only creates an atmosphere of distrust and engenders the type of virulent opposition that activists like Ms. Shiva have inspired across the globe.

Vandana Shiva at the Save The World Awards show 2009
Image above is from Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

But Ms. Shiva sounds naive with statements like “We would have no hunger in the world if the seed was in the hands of farmers” and luddite when arguing for a total reset of industrial agriculture. We probably have to go back to the mythical days of ‘Rama’ to find a world without hunger. As with every human activity, agriculture has evolved over time and hitting a historical reset button will probably require the invention of time-travel. It is difficult  for any activist to be heard in the midst of the white noise generated by corporate marketing machines. But characterising any opposition as paid mouthpieces of Monsanto and citing spurious correlations between GMO foods and diseases suggests a dogmatic evangelist more than compassionate scientist. Likening GMO farmers to rapists only serves to drown out her valid concerns on the externalities of GMO foods like cross-pollination and the evolution of pests and bacteria with resistances, and alienates the reasonable people who want to listen.

In a perfect and rational world, decisions on scientific policy would simply be a matter of adding up the benefits and subtracting the costs. A comprehensive and transparent accounting of costs and benefits allows us to make rational decisions as opposed to having to default to principles of precaution for the fear of negative consequences. Since societies cannot be recreated for laboratory experiments however, we are limited to broad estimates of the potential costs and benefits. And as with the legal system, perhaps the ‘truth’ is best arrived through the rivalrous process of two sides advocating passionately for their view.

Extending this courtroom analogy to scientific policy decisions, the role of any government or regulator would be to perform the function of the ‘impartial judge’ between the two sides, but without the advantage of a mutually agreed upon set of laws to make the judgment. Without them, the best role of a government might be to ensure full disclosure of known facts by creating forums for the publication and peer review of all claims and by stringently punishing willful misinformation. Just as important is the willingness to reverse a decision in the face of the new information. Flexibility is the best tool against uncertainty. Governments the world over also need to do a better job holding private companies to account for the negative externalities of their actions such as the degradation of surrounding lands, so that the cost of innovation is borne by those who profit from the same. And perhaps the most essential ingredient for encouraging innovation are governments willing to be unpopular. Masterful inactivity might be a road to consensus, but in today’s polarised world, unpopularity and Twitter tantrums seem as inevitable as death and taxes. So if you are going to be unpopular, you might as well get something done in the mean time. And every once in a blue moon, the electorate might actually reward you for it.

Shree is a wandering economist who has changed his address fourteen times in the last fourteen years. He has few ideas except those opposite to who he is talking to.


Precaution discarded, Kasturirangan report does not recognise importance of Western Ghats

SuhasaniRao_RainmakerfacultyIn April 2013, the Kasturirangan Committee constituted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (“MoEF”) submitted its report on the Western Ghats, sparking much political debate about the fate of this mountain range, which runs parallel to the western coast of India, almost contiguously from the lower reaches of Gujarat to the tip of the Indian peninsula. A unique geological and ecological marvel home to the greatest concentration of biodiversity in the world, hosting about 325 globally threatened species in an area roughly forty-three times the state of Goa, they are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a key component in regulating the south-west monsoon cycle that forms the basis of the subcontinent’s rainfed agriculture. Not only do they provide a natural barrier to the rain-laden winds, the topography of the Ghats has, over millennia, become the natural habitat for thousands of species of flora and fauna that live in delicately balanced ecosystems throughout the ranges. As the Kasturirangan Committee report accepts, only concerted efforts to study it over decades will provide a full appreciation of the value of this exceptional phenomenon.

Western Ghats biodiversityGiven that it spans the six states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, it is vital that state governments and the Union government work with each other to preserve this unique ecosystem. Remember, that since the protection of wildlife and the regulation of forests are subjects in Entries 17A and 17B of the Concurrent List of Schedule VII of the Constitution of India (“Constitution”), the Union and the State governments have to co-ordinate conservation efforts.

In August 2011, the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, (“WGEEP”), headed by Madhav Gadgil, had submitted to the MoEF, a report (“the Gadgil Committee Report”) containing recommendations for the preservation of the Western Ghats. It recommended the formation of a Western Ghats Ecology Authority under Section 3(3) of the Environment Protection Act, 1986 (“EPA”) to exercise greater control over environmentally damaging activities in the Western Ghats as well as to oversee conservation efforts in the region.

The WGEEP had been required to “demarcate ecologically sensitive zones and suggest measures to conserve, protect and rejuvenate the ecology of Western Ghats region.” Based on the feedback of the different stakeholders and the recommendations of the Gadgil Committee Report, the MoEF constituted a High Level Working Group to provide suggestions for “an all-round and holistic approach for sustainable and equitable development while keeping in focus the preservation and conservation of ecological systems in Western Ghats.” The HLWG was headed by Dr. K. Kasturirangan and it came out with the Kasturirangan Committee Report.

What is the debate all about?

KKasturirangan_MadhavGadgil.jpgThe western region of India has traditionally had a high density of human population. In recent years, monoculture plantations (such as spices and bananas in the Kodagu region of Karnataka), poaching, and livestock grazing have added to the pressure on the land. Over the last two decades, mining and extraction of sand, in particular, have led to large-scale degradation in places like Goa, where the mining industry contributes a major chunk of the state’s revenues. This ever-increasing threat and the need for sustainable solutions prompted the Union government to institute the Gadgil and subsequently, the Kasturirangan committees. Both sets of recommendations have run into rough weather.

The Kasturirangan Committee report recognised that almost 60 per cent of the region of the Western Ghats is under human habitation, leaving only about 37 per cent of it – close to 60,000 square kilometres in area – under uninhabited forest cover. The report recommended that all such land be declared an Ecologically Sensitive Area (“ESA”) and that a prohibitory and regulatory regime be implemented in ESA regions including a complete ban on mining, quarrying, and sand mining. Obviously, this has attracted a lot of political debate and is now the subject of negotiations between the Union and the state governments that will be affected if this recommendation is to be legislated.

In a bid to strike a balance between conservation efforts and continued sustainable human development, the report also recommended incentivising green growth and proposes spurring growth of the inhabited regions of the Western Ghats through grant-in-aid projects funded by the Union Government. It envisaged increased expenditure by the Union government towards state debts in a way that will boost the productivity of forest-reliant livelihoods.

“This is a mechanism whereby part of the outstanding debt of a State is swapped for new constructive initiatives by it to protect its natural resources. A part of these payments be retained by the State Governments and a part be used to finance local conservation trust funds (as in several countries), which disburse grants to community projects for improving forest productivity and ensuring sustainable forest based livelihoods in ESAs.”

EnvLaw-GIFWhile the idea of sustainable economic development is a good one in theory, considering the amount of pressure that is already exerted on a fragile and fast-shrinking ecosystem, it may not be the most pragmatic approach. The report in fact follows through to propose two extreme and contrasting views. At one end of the spectrum are the strictly regulated and cloistered regions under the ESA category with zero-tolerance for any human activity. At the other end, the rest of the Western Ghats are under threat of turning into an open forestry industry, where almost every environmental resource is potentially tapped for its economic value.

In its report, the Gadgil Committee had recommended the stricter monitoring and implementation of the applicable environmental laws to maintain and possibly achieve, a greater level of conservation of the Western Ghats. Seeing how these would be difficult to achieve, the Kasturirangan Committee broke the area down into components. Madhav Gadgil’s open letter to Dr. Kasturirangan was scathing; he said the latter set of recommendations would result in “maintain[ing] oases of diversity in desert of ecological devastation”.

Precaution, sustainability

GadgillCommittee_KasturiranganCommittee_ComparisonThe precautionary principle, first articulated in Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration of 1991 (“Rio Declaration”), demands the exercise of caution in carrying out human activities, the effect of which on the environment are not clearly known at that time. This principle has been a part of Indian law since the Supreme Court emphasised the need for scientific inputs before decisions could be made regarding the environment in A.P. Pollution Control Board v. M.V. Nayadu. It recognises the need to protect the natural world for its intrinsic value and not just for its potential benefits for human civilisation. Our knowledge of the ecosystems and the ecology of the Western Ghats is quite limited and to base our long term decisions on our inadequate comprehension is not just an error but an example of bad governance. The principles of sustainable development, which were read into Indian law by the Court in the case of Vellore Citizens’ Welfare Forum v. Union of India, and which through the Rio Declaration, require nations to achieve developmental goals without irreversibly compromising the capacity of the environment to sustain present and future generations, are also at play.

Given the role of these concepts in Indian law, the Kasturirangan Committee failed to grasp the importance of the Western Ghats to the geography of the Indian subcontinent as well as the role they play in the lives of those who inhabit them. We need to do away with short-term solutions and focus on developing a better understanding of the region to achieve a more robust framework of laws and processes that will facilitate better conservation in the region.

(Suhasini Rao is part of the faculty at