Unfortunately, these lessons will be drowned out in nationalistic hype as the frontpage headline in Indian Express illustrates.
On August 23, India was literally “over the Moon” when Chandrayaan-3 successfully made a soft landing on a part of the Moon where no one had succeeded thus far. The achievement was not that of one person, but of a team of literally hundreds of scientists affiliated to the Indian Space Research Organisation.
When the media turned the spotlight on them, all of them highlighted the team effort. Not even one, including the man who heads ISRO, Dr S Somanath, spoke of it as the work of one, or even a small handful of people. Television news tried hard to do that, with one anchor calling Dr Somanath “the man of the match”. The latter firmly denied this and again emphasised the team.
There is something to be learned from the Chandrayaan-3 success story, for us as a country but also for those of us in the media.
First, the success should underline the importance of science, of the scientific process, of rational thinking and of people working together for a larger goal. This piece by writer and journalist Gita Aravamudan, whose husband was a part of the early space projects, brings out the latter aspect well.
A scientific approach is especially significant in these times when we are bombarded with pseudo-science, when scientific facts are erased from our textbooks and when political leaders have no qualms endorsing non-scientific solutions to disease, for instance.
Second, the scientists interviewed by the media after the successful landing spoke of the importance of learning from failure. Chandrayaan-2 had failed to make a soft landing four years ago. Instead of turning on the people who worked on that project, ISRO gave the very same people the responsibility to analyse what went wrong and work towards solutions. This interview with two scientists by The NewsMinute illustrates the absence of hype in the responses of the scientists.
And third, the importance of high-quality and affordable institutions teaching science and technology. The foundations for this were laid post-Independence when the government invested in such educational institutions. The individual profiles of some of the scientists involved in the Chandrayaan-3 project reveal that most of them were educated in India.
Unfortunately, these rather obvious lessons will be drowned out in the nationalistic hype surrounding the success as the front-page headline in Indian Express illustrates.
As for science and what it ought to teach us about development policies, we only have to look at the devastation we are witnessing in Himachal Pradesh.
One of the lessons from the Moon mission that policy makers ought to heed is the importance of learning from past mistakes. It is evident today, that much of the scale of the destruction in Himachal Pradesh could have been minimised had this been done. On the contrary, every principle that evolved from past experience and reinforced in multiple expert reports, has been violated by governments and private builders. The price for this is being paid by ordinary people in these states.
Thanks to social media, those concerned and interested in the tragedy of the Himalayan states have been able to see the distressing visuals of brick-and-mortar structures crumbling within seconds.
As always, independent media houses have done much better in their coverage of the Himachal disaster than mainstream television.
The ground reports by Hridayesh Joshi in Newslaundry have been exceptional. They show us not just the extent of the devastation, but also, through interviews with ordinary people and experts, they help us understand the reasons that go beyond heavy rains.
The Newsclick interviewed seismologist C P Rajendran who speaks about the “flawed developmental model” adopted by states like Himachal Pradesh.
Print media has also carried some useful articles that explain why we must view the Himachal Pradesh devastation not as a natural disaster but as one made by human intervention.
For instance, since the 1980s, questions have been raised about building dams in the fragile ecosystem on the Himalayas. Can they sustain large storage dams that allow for generation of power when needed, or would they be better off with “run-of-the-river” dams that are smaller and do not store water? The latter were recommended. But most of the dams built in the last decades have been of the former kind. As this report in The Tribune explains, the release of water from these dams when the water levels rose due to the rainfall – without adequate warning to the habitations along the river – exacerbated the destruction.
Similarly, there has been a strong push to widen roads to facilitate access for tourists and pilgrims. This is considered essential to boost the economy in states like Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
But as several reports have shown, even the basic norm that you cannot cut fragile hillsides at angles of 90 degrees was ignored. As a result, we have seen new highways literally crumbling, one side covered by boulders that have rolled down and the other sinking.
Also, in places like Shimla, if there were town planning norms about the height of structures, or where they can be built, it is evident that they have been ignored. As this story illustrates, brick and concrete structures were even built on riverbeds. This was a disaster just waiting to happen, and it has.
In contrast to Shimla, the hill-station of Mussoorie in Uttarakhand suffered less even though it also encountered heavy rain. According to this writer, one reason for this was because corrective measures were taken several decades back to reforest areas devastated by limestone mining and restrictions on buildings and roads were put in place.
Ironically, the British who initiated the building of hill stations like Shimla and Mussoorie, had laid down norms that factored in the carrying capacity of these locations, a phrase that is in currency today when it is almost too late. They recommended, for instance, that structures ought not to be constructed on slopes exceeding 30 degrees.
You could argue that the colonial concept of hill stations restricted access to only the elite, people who could afford second homes away from cities, and that so-called “development” has opened these places to people from other classes who needed cheaper accommodation and public transport. Yet, tragically, it is the classes that can now access these hill stations who have suffered the most. They are the ones who were trapped in buildings that crumbled, on highways that sank, on hillsides that collapsed.
The ongoing disaster in Himachal Pradesh ought to inform us in the media that there is always a back story to what is touted as a “natural disaster”. If we buy into it, and reinforce it in the way we report, we allow those responsible for the problem, usually the government, to get away with it. We also perpetuate the myth that development is essential and that questioning infrastructure projects, such as roads, or dams, is somehow anti-national, or anti-development.
In the past, many civil society groups and environmentalists have been labelled thus. The Narmada Bachao Andolan that compelled rethinking on large dams like the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River in the early 1980s was called “anti-development”. The campaign, led by people like Medha Patkar, emphasised the importance of environmental sustainability, and the social costs of large-scale projects that resulted in the displacement of the poorest and most vulnerable communities. This was well before all these concepts were being mouthed by world leaders.
In the case of the Himalayas, again from the 1980s, there have been warnings, and studies to back them, on the direction development plans were taking there. Most of these were not heeded. At most a pretence was made to accept an “expert report” only for it to be relegated to a back shelf.
The consequences of this attitude by all governments, irrespective of their political affiliation, are before our eyes today.
In the Second Citizens’ Report on the State of the Environment, published in the mid-1980s, the late environmentalist and journalist Anil Agarwal, who established the Centre for Science and Environment, wrote an essay titled “Politics of Environment” which seems almost prophetic today:
“The post-independence political debate in India has centred on two major issues: equity and growth. The environmental concern has added a third dimension: sustainability. India’s biggest challenge today is to identify and implement a development process that will lead to greater equity, growth, and sustainability.”
“Development can take place at the cost of the environment only uptil a point. Beyond that point it will be like the foolish man who was trying to cut the very branch on which he was sitting”.
From all indications, in the four decades since this was written, India seems to have reached that point.
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