On December 3, 1984 the people of Bhopal suddenly became aware of the real nature of modern science and technology (S&T) and the catastrophic effects that it can have on human life. During the three months since the tragedy, many causes have been listed by various groups, agencies and journalists. These include the culpability of multinationals, corruption in government and the lack of public awareness of the potential hazards and action to be taken in case of accidents. What we feel is that these are but symptoms of a deeper malaise that affects the S&T community of the country an inability or unwillingness to look into the deeper implications of S&T practice, especially its effects on society, the environment and the people.

Bhopal has highlighted the failure of the Indian, S&T community to understand that modern S&T comes as a 'package' with its own needs and demands, effects and costs, not only at the technical, but also at the social and cultural levels. We still treat technology as merely gadgets or processes in isolation, to be 'transferred' to India from abroad. The broader implications and ideologies that are a part of this package are not perceived by the community, and no steps are taken to assess their effects. The failure of the S&T community is highlighted by the confusion that prevailed after the tragedy, when it was realized that there had apparently been no real or meaningful assessment of the possible risks posed by the plant, or of possible points of failure or contingencies to meet it. Not only did we import the technology, but we also had to depend on foreign 'experts' (including those from Union Carbide) to deal with the situation.

The failure is not limited to pesticide plants. The S&T community in India is engaged in a variety of 'developmental' activities that are said to lead to progress. However many of them, like the Green Revolution, have hidden costs that far outweigh their potential benefits. Large dams, atomic power stations and factories are being constructed without a serious look at their long-term effects. Bhopal is just the visible portion of an iceberg of S&T practice that threatens our existence. Unless the practitioners of S&T are willing to review the long-term and wider implications of the products and processes they espouse or create, the benefits of S&T will never accrue to the people.

This failure of the S&T community to live up to its responsibilities is especially tragic in a country like India where the majority of the people have no choice but to accept the veracity of scientific statements without question. It is expected of this community that it does act with a high sense of ethics and responsibility towards the people. The events after Bhopal have shown that scientists prefer to hide truth (the nature of the leaked gases) rather than save lives (by adopting the proper line of-treatment).A cloak of secrecy covers any mishap and the community closes ranks, to mask its failures, even at the cost of many lives. We believe that this failure of the S&T community to live up to what is expected of it is perhaps due to the lack of a sense of individual and collective responsibility in its actions. As members of this community it is time for each of us to appraise the responsibility that we have towards the people, adopt ethical standards of behavior, and constantly review the long-term and: larger effects of our work. This can be done individually or collectively, by asking the following queries about "the products or processes we develop:

  1. What are the requirements for implementing the product or process? What are the possible, risks and hazards?

  2. Who are responsible for its proper functioning and to whom are they accountable?

  3. Who are the people affected by the operation of the plant process and what are the social and environmental costs involved in running the plant?

  4. Above all why do we need such a product or process, and who benefits from it ?

All practitioners of S&T in this country must ask these questions not only of the work that they are engaged in now, but also of the existing products and processes that are already in operation. And those that fail to justify their existence due to high costs or risks, should be identified and removed. In our attempt to 'develop' the country and 'catch up' with the West we must ensure that we do not destroy our people,our environment and our culture. In order to initiate such a review process, it would be advisable that the various organizations and agencies, which are concerned about the Bhopal tragedy and its wider implications about S&T practice, collaborate in order to act collectively at local) and national levels. This activity need not be limited to S&T groups and organizations alone but may extend to other groups like Civil Rights Activists, Women's Groups, etc. At the (local level joint action can be taken to:
  1. Form a panel of Committed S&T personnel who have the expertise to initiate a review of f S&T activities in that area as outlined above.

  2. Identify and list dangerous products and processes that are used n the locality. This should include even those which are harmful socially, environmentally or culturally. This can form the basis for an eventual extension of the work to an analysis of the projects or processes which are being planned.

  3. Inform the people about the real nature of S&T and the dangers posed by it. This is especially important for people living in the neighborhood of plants which are identified to be dangerous.

In Bangalore there are some groups, including the Action Committee (IISC), the Medico Friends Circle and the PPST which have been concerned about Bhopal tragedy and the lessons that should be learn from it. Some work has already been initiated by the Action Committee, which has gone into an examination of the environmental impact and safety measures adopted by installations near the Indian Institute of Science. More coordinated work is being planned. We also feel, however, that debate and action on a national level is equally essential. The many symptoms of the failure of modern S & T to deliver the goods, and of the path of development to lead to real up lifeboatmen and better living conditions for the majority of the people, questions the very assumptions which are inherent in the large-scale adoption of modern S&T, at least in the manner that has gone on so far. We believe that a national debate on this question and follow-up corrective action are now imperative.

Author: Bangalore Group

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