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What Communication!

September 21, 2011

It was with amusement that I started watching Arnab Goswami’s daily talk show on Times Now on the 20th of September. He had social activists raising alarm against the Koodankulam Nuclear Project. He had a couple of experts, scientist-cum-administrators. One was Dr Balachandran, a Strategic Affair and Nuclear Policy analyst, and another an ex-chief of the Atomic Energy establishment in India.

Possibly, the public is ill-informed. Yet, I do not think it is anybody’s case that nuclear reactors can be zero-risk. They have the risks of things going awry. There is the additional risk of safe storage of spent fuel.

But then, there are risks in every activity. There is risk in crossing a road, but you do not stop crossing roads because of that. Dealers in the dens of sin called the bourses, and professors of finance theory have made careers out of assessing the risk-reward trade-off. Yeah, there seems to be some reward waiting on the other side of the road. Greener grass?

It may not be very widely known that air travel is the safest mode of transport today. Sensationalisation of aircraft accidents, coupled with the fear of being in a state where your legs don’t reach the ground, together with under-reporting and ignoring of reported accidents in other modes of transport contribute to the public not being aware of this. But it also takes a dispassionate study of the numbers, etc, to understand this. And yes, one has to search for where the data is available.

The experts were for the project, and against delaying it. One of the experts was earnestly labouring to point out that the safety record of nuclear power plants was much better than that of other power plants. I think a reason for this, as also for the relative safety of air travel should be the much better-enforced standards of risk management. And that would be based on the realisation that these are inherently dangerous. If the same standards were maintained in other areas, their safety record could have been possibly better, too.

I repeat, the public is possibly ill-informed. Including the activists on the panel and those protesting at the site. One of the activists was asserting that a hundred thousand people had died at Chernobyl. The source of this information, as usual, is not known.

But someone has to communicate to the people. It cannot be done by TRP-hungry TV channels that look for controversy and fights between panelists. The behaviour of one of the experts on the show demonstrated this well. He started with a derisive smile that developed into a guffaw and then he covered his face with his hands and started rocking with derisive laughter. In between, he managed to say something about an 800-page Environmental Impact Study, etc, but continued his exhibition without trying to explain anything. The moderator was more interested in the reactions and counting TRPs, not how viewers were being informed.

Now we know why people are ill informed. I will assume that the so-called impact studies are non-partisan, not influenced by certain stake holders other than the public, scientific and authoritative. But you don’t communicate it to people by publishing it in a hard to access manner, and then laughing at people why they have not studied them. I won’t name the expert, as this is not a rant against a person, but a wail on poor communication, caused by attitudes…

The arrogance of the establishment was in full view.

Is such information hard to access and assess? How do I know where a public hearing is going to be held about a project that might affect me? Activists at least should make it their business to know and educate people if there are problems.

Tailpiece: This one is on communication. So the excellent speech of Bijay Kumar Gachchedar, Deputy Prime Minister and now Acting Prime Minister of Nepal in the Nepalese Parliament, about the earthquake that shook his country a couple of days back has to be touched upon. He stated the obvious, that earthquakes cannot be prevented. Then he followed up with “I pray to Pashupatinath that in future earthquakes hit the US and other developed nations…”


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