India: Killing the Messenger, Ignoring the Message

India: Killing the Messenger, Ignoring the Message

April 9, 2011: Three recent episodes, seemingly unrelated:

November 29, 2009: Reuters reported that Indian officials were investigating the leak of a radioactive substance into drinking water from an atomic power plant in Kaira, south of Bangalore.

April 10, 2010: the Times of India reported that exposure to radioactive Cobalt-60 in scrap at a disposal site outside of Delhi had left four workers fighting for their lives. The scrap had not originated in a nuclear facility but from industrial waste. Over the next month, government statements reiterated that those who handled potentially toxic waste were supposed to follow “stringent procedures.

August 13, 2010: NDTV (New Delhi Television) reported that British researchers had found a super-antibiotic-resistant bacterium in India. The scientific community, which often follows the practice of naming bacteria after the place where they are first isolated and identified, has given this one the name New Delhi Metallo-1. On April 7, 2011, BBC reported that a group of scientists in Cardiff had found antibiotic-resistant bacteria in Delhi drinking water. It is not clear whether these were the same type of bacteria. In both cases, the Indian health authorities immediately dismissed the studies involved.


I’m not a scientist and cannot vouch for the accuracy of any of these stories. They share one disturbing thread: in each case, the response of the authorities has been to assert immediately that safety procedures are flawless and that the unwelcome discovery is either without foundation or under control. They have sought to kill or at least discredit the messenger and if possible to bury the message as well.

Their authorities’ assertions may turn out to be correct (and then again, they may not). But it is implausible that anyone could have a real basis for denying that there is a problem before conducting a real investigation. Following both the radiation incidents, there was an investigation, and in the case of the nuclear scrap incident, the government did announce that it had retrieved 112 cobalt slugs and had bought monitoring equipment to install at India’s ports, having concluded that the radioactive scrap came from abroad. This is good, but one wonders whether it fully responds to the risk the incident uncovered. Are there effective procedures in place for monitoring domestic scrap?

More importantly, “flawless” safety procedures do not exist. Security, whether from nuclear leaks, from resistant bacteria, or from a whole host of dangerous conditions, is a moving target. Procedures are implemented by fallible human beings, and the fidelity with which they are implemented is always open to question. Even if the procedures were faithfully executed, a security lapse may mean that the procedures now need to change. Systems that protect today may be inadequate next year – or next month.

These problems are not unique to India. In 2007, an aircraft carrying six nuclear warheads flew across the United States without any authorization or even awareness by the military authorities, a grave security lapse and a huge embarrassment for the U.S. military.

No institution likes to be embarrassed. Even more, no institution likes to be criticized or examined by outsiders. (I spent 30 years in the U.S. diplomatic service, and I can understand in my bones the institutional defense reflex.) And yet, both a modern economy and democratic government demand just that when it appears that there may have been a serious breach of security measures, whether military, medical, or in some other aspect of life where the government undertakes to keep people safe.

India has undergone amazing transformation in the past two decades. In any country, the behavioral side of transformation lags behind things like economic expansion. Government institutions – Indian, U.S., or other – will not provide the kind of transparent accountability that is needed unless they are pressed to do so by their own citizens. Moreover, citizens’ concept of an acceptable level of safety changes with greater prosperity.

As India becomes a world leader with a presence in much of the globe, is it time for a new look at institutional accountability, and at safety?

Teresita Schaffer

1 Comment

  1. P.R.Chari says:

    Good to give these issues of State insouciance and mendacity an airing.
    In fact, the Cobalt-60 traced to a Delhi scrap market was found to come from Delhi University’s Chemistry Department. It was for some radiation experiments done in the seventies, after which everyone forgot. The related equipment lay forgotten in the junk store, until the Department decided to get rid of its junk.The AEC was desperate to slur over the fact that, as per laid down procedures, they had to ensure and the Chemistry Department had to report the usage of the Cobalt-60 annually, and to ensure that it was returned when not required. Interesting aspect of this incident was that the junk dealer who found the Cobalt-60 thought it was valuable and slept with it under his pillow for safety from theft!
    Nobody wants to admit the truth of Murphy’s law. It is inexorable. But, fortunately the United States and India are democracies with a free press to draw attention to these incidents. How would China have handled these situations?

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