Science in Public Policy

Wednesday, 30 May 2001
Parth J Shah
Economic Times

Facts an scientific evidence apparently play little role in the formulation of environmental policy, argues Parth J Shah

Is our public policy about economy to environment based on science? Do facts, evidence, and objective deliberations determine it? Or do we rely largely on our hunches and gut feelings, our general sense of how the world works, or what Thomas Sowell termed “vision”? Is the stand on a policy issue set by our subconscious sense (Sowell’s vision), and the science used mainly to rationalise it?

The question cannot be answered in the abstract; a specific case study is requirement issue. Take recent environmental issue: Supreme Court’s order in the use of CNG for public transport in Delhi, and the position of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) that to save the chiru, the endangered Tibetan government should remove the ban on shahtoosh trade and allow farming of the chiru. I agree with CSE’s chiru policy but disagree with my personal stance is not the issue. This is not to criticise the apex court or CSE; I’m hope both would see the larger purpose of the analysis.

Let’s begin with CSE’s chiru policy as outlined in “Harvest the wild?” in the May 31 issue of down to earth.

Basic Facts: Which part of chiru’s body gives the wool? At one point, we are told, the neck hair, but later, “two layers of hair—the guard hair and the undercoat—provide the antelope the armour against the cold. The undercoat, which is sheared or combed for making shahtoosh, is said to be the thickets during winter.” Is it the undercoat or neck hair? Do they grow back once sheared? No answer. If they do, there is no need to kill the chiru to collect its wool. The wool can be harvested repeatedly. Why does then harvesting of chiru’s neck hair or undercoat turn it into an endangered species? No answer again. The basic facts about the source of the wool and what kills the chiru are missing.

Scientific Evidence: The proposed policy is that to save the chiru, we should be allowed to farm it. But the article provides no evidence that chiru can actually be farmed. The sole Indian experiment of captive breeding was aborted due to the “incompetent government.” One thinks that it’s just the issue of Indian government’s incompetence or unwillingness to invest in such experiments. China’s success in captive breeding of musk deer required “a lot of investment and complex technology.” Towards the end of the article, however, we hear from William Bleisch, a researcher in Hong Kong, “several attempts have been made to raise the chiru in captivity outside India, but most have failed. The problem is not known. There is great interest in this lucrative possibility.” No scientific evidence to support the policy prescription.

Human Concerns: A good part of the article is spent on highlighting and personalising the detrimental impact of the shahtoosh ban on the spinners and weavers. Mohidin Rather earned as much as Rs. 6,000 a month as a weaver, while his wife made about Rs. 40 per day as a spinner. But now they get barely Rs. 1,200 to 1,400. The paper promises of the J&K government for rehabilitation package are brought to light. All these coalesce into a heart-rending emotional appeal against the ban.

Rhetoric: Emotional appeal joins ad hominem. It turns out that the chief minister Farooq Abdullah was strongly against the ban. But the visit of Maneka Gandhi in June 2000 suddenly changed his stance.

Despite its long-standing suspicion of genetically modified objects, Down to Earth favourably quotes Khurshid Hussain Malik of the animal husbandry department, “A chiru can give around 250 gm of wool a year. They should be reared and genetically upgraded to give up to 700-800 gm without disturbing the quality.” Now compare this analysis of the chiru policy with the CSE’s stand on CNG. This stand has been widely covered in the media and in CSE publications; I could be brief. Scientific evidence of unequivocal superiority of CNG over other fuels is not established. Whatever evidence about the working of CNG vehicles that we do have is from outside India. No experiments have been conducted on various ramifications of the use of CNG in Indian conditions, not just the climate, but also the technology, structure, and myriad uses of Indian buses, taxis, and autos. The precautionary principle, waived at issues from global warming to genetically modified food, is set aside.

More astonishingly, no such experiments have even been demanded. What an oversight? CNG pushers did not conduct or contract out such experiments. It’s hard to believe that they would have failed in raising the necessary few crores, especially when environmental as well as economic life of millions of Delhites was at stake. No grant applications to ministries or international agencies could be traced.

The Supreme Court ordered conversion to CNG on July 28, 1998. It set up the Bhure Lal Committee to evaluate “cleanliness” of various fuels…on April 27, 2001. It gave four weeks to the Committee to collect and assess mountains of literature on pros and cons of various fuels.

The court on March 26, 2001 declared that petrol with one per cent benzene would be considered a clean fuel. The Delhi government then contested that this mitigates the need for complete CNG conversion. The case is still pending. The orders of April 29, 1999 and May 13, 1999 allow registration of diesel taxis if they are Euro II compliant. Should all taxis be then converted to CNG? Does the apex court know what its benches are doing? Despite these confusing signals, the CNG lobby castigated the Delhi government for not taking the July 1998 court order seriously. When a respected research institute challenged the science of CNG choice, the lobby dismissed it as the lackey of petrol and diesel industry. Ad hominem again.

Facts and scientific evidence specific to India played little role in the policy on chiru or CNG. The policy stance was shaped by Sowell’s vision. And science and human concerns became tools of rationalisation. In case of chiru, human angle got highlighted, but the anguish and harassment of the bus, taxi, and auto drivers found hardly a mention in the writings of CSE authors. They parodied politicians’ concerns for the people and palliated the deafness of the court.

Our environmental policy is shaped by the subconscious sense—Sowell’s vision, and the science and suffering are summoned mainly for rationalisation.