Eyes Wide Shut
"A nuclear reactor is so vastly expensive and complicated that people cannot understand it, so they assume that those working on it understand it. Even those with strong opinions might withhold them for fear of being shown to be insufficiently informed. On the other hand, everyone understands a bicycle shed (or thinks they do), so building one can result in endless discussions: everyone involved wants to add his touch and show that he is there"
–Parkinson’s Law of Triviality (from Parkinson’s Law, 1955)
The fellow was standing on his 25th floor balcony contemplating the evening sky, when he heard someone shout, "Hey Banta Singh, your daughter Jeeto has committed suicide!". In his grief he jumped from the balcony. When he passed the 20th floor it occurred to him his daughter was not called Jeeto. As he passed the 15th, he remembered he had no daughters. And as he passed the 10th he recalled his name was not Banta Singh!
–An Indian Joke
When he published it in 1915, Albert Einstein had formulated his Theory of General Relativity entirely in his imagination. It was not until four years later, in 1919, that it would be verified empirically. Few of us can aspire to such a distinction, but wouldn’t it have been enough of a thrill to be there at least when the experiment confirmed Einstein’s theory?
If you were paying attention, you might have had a similar opportunity recently.
If Einstein’s prediction was verified by Sir Arthur Eddington and his colleagues as they viewed the 1919 solar eclipse from faraway Principe in West Africa, the unerring insight the Law of Triviality was to be laid bare in the lower house of the Indian Parliament, a continent away and a half-century later. I can tell my grandchildren I saw it happen!
But let us begin at the beginning.
Earlier this week, the Indian Parliament had a two-day debate on whether the government should pursue the nuclear deal with the United States. The proceedings, shown live, turned out to be gripping television. Whether or not you followed politics, you couldn’t help getting caught up in the drama of the Lok Sabha debate, with its stirring speeches, constant interruptions, inspired heckling, a Speaker by turns bemused and amused, himself a fugitive from his party, vainly trying to bring order to his assembly. There were accusations of MP’s being kidnapped, charges of open bribery and, a couple of hours before the end, a dramatic display in Parliament of a valise with bundles of 1000 rupee bills (10 million rupees in raw cash) by three oppositon MPs claiming the government side had given them the money to get them to abstain. Many of the speeches were outstanding, some moving, one in particular was rollicking. The pace never flagged. The bar for entertainment in India has been set high, and Bollywood will have to work its heart out to regain its position. Even the President of India reportedly canceled all appointments to sit in front of her TV.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose speech was supposed to conclude the debate (called ‘replying to the debate’) could not speak amidst the noise and interruption which followed the rupee bundle demonstration. He had instead to enter his speech into the record and sit down. Then they voted, and what was expected to be a squeak-through victory for Mr. Singh’s government turned out to be a 19-vote margin after all. But the governing alliance had been turned inside out. Those who were supporting it had turned opponents. New allies had taken their place.
And though the government had won, it had really won a vote of confidence in its continuation, not specifically the nuclear deal, for there had been little to no discussion of that subject. The Left Parties were opposed to the American connection, the largest opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seemed to have only one grouse, namely that the Congress rather than it had engineered the agreement. As to the government, you could have gathered from its speeches that the nuclear deal was the lone and final key the country had to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
But the government could claim that Parliament had approved the nuclear deal (a weaker claim than Bush’s saying Congress authorized the Iraq War, but Indians are fast learners), They lost no time in doing so. And the Bush administration, eager to see this move forward, welcomed the victory and urged Godspeed, a sentiment gleefully reciprocated by the enlivened Congress party. The nuclear lobbies in both countries are salivating at the prospect of a radiant path paved with profits. Or perhaps, a path to profits paved with radiation, except the subject never came up.
Those who watched it even marveled at the high level of participation (house full) and the level of the debate, some speaking in English, others in Hindi. It was a proud moment for all Indians, parliamentary democracy at its best (the bags of money notwithstanding), etc. etc. Unlike the staid debates on C-SPAN, one member talking to an empty chamber as the person in the chair tries not to nod off, this was vigorous and enthusiastic.
It was only later, after all the excitement settled down, that you remembered that there wasn’t much said about nuclear energy, its need and its dangers, the wisdom of depending on foreign nuclear fuel (why is it any better than depending on foreign oil?) So riveting was the debate that we forgot what it was for.
To my recollection, there was not one sentence spoken by anyone, for or against the government, on the matter of nuclear waste and what India planned to do with it. It is a problem that has not been solved by any country. No one mentioned that nuclear waste stays on for thousands of years.
Very little was said about why other countries are not jumping on nuclear energy. One minister (Pranab Mukherjee, who gave an otherwise sober speech) theorized that neither America or Russia was building nuclear plants because ‘they were floating on oil’. America imports 70% of its oil, and Mukherjee is India’s foreign minister.
There was virtually no discussion of what role nuclear energy should play in the overall plan. France (and its high reliance on nuclear energy) was mentioned by a few speakers on the government side. The French challenge of dealing with a huge amount of radioactive spent fuel was never mentioned.
There was much talk of 2030 and 2050 — how much of the country’s energy would be nuclear by that time. What’s more, the agreement’s proponents argued that this was actually their way of avoiding global warming! What was the plan all these years before Bush’s visit opened this line of thought? Not asked, not answered.
In all the discussion, the one name that never came up was that of Mahatma Gandhi. When Henry Ford wrote to him asking what possible objection Gandhi could have if he (Ford) were to electrify entire towns or villages, Gandhi answered Ford with an simple question: Who would control the switch? Through all their mock outrage, sarcasm hot and cold, paternal disdain, that and other essential questions never occurred to India’s Parliamentarians during their two-day gabfest. Whatever the truth about their other alleged crimes of bribery and intimidation, it can be truly said that in the matter of nuclear energy and its impact on India, they remain wholly innocent.
As does the country the debate was supposed to educate.
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. He can be reached at email@example.com.