Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Government Scientist Speaks Out On Flood Management

You don't hear many Indian Government scientists opining about science, policy, the environment, civic criticism...well you get the picture.

There are put it politely.

But Chetan Pandit of the Central Water Commission has broken the shackles and in the October issue of Current Science comes out sparring strongly against - in his opinion - the woolly headed arguments of the environmental community  and the media on the subject of big dams and flood control.

He puts forth several fallacies and myths regarding dams and flood control and argues very well that big dams have served as effective flood managers.

And I had to chuckle at this:

We Indians seem to be particularly susceptible to this ‘romancing with the past’. Everything, be it water management, or agriculture, Ayurveda, mathematics, literature, astrology, etc., we like to believe that in India all learning had reached its peak in some distant past, and the best thing for us to do is, to continue to do what our ancestor’s did. And this is given a lofty name ‘wisdom of the centuries’.

You may be inclined to view big dams as destroyers of forests and biodiversity and so on but Chetan Pandit has made some good points about the intellectual environment in which debates on these issues take place and are presented to the public in India. One of the most important points he makes is that many people who get involved in criticizing government projects are numerically challenged. Arguments are high on the emotional quotient but there is little quantitative analysis of data to go with it.

I am sure not all environmentalists are so mathematically naive, nor should every developmental project be reduced to just numbers. But this is a government scientists view. When presented with a  rare opportunity to speak out he doesn't restraint himself.

Read the article here.

Update: Chetan Pandit via an email to me wants to clarify:

I never said that those criticizing government projects are “numerically challenged”, or mathematically na├»ve, etc. Even a high school student would be able to import the data on flood affected area into a spread sheet and plot a graph to see whether or not there is any increasing trend. What happens is, if they do that their argument will collapse, the numbers do not favour them, they know it, and therefore they have to willfully ignore the numbers. Which is why I wouldn’t describe the environment in which debate takes place as “intellectual”. It is pseudo-intellectual.

Chetan Pandit

Sure, he didn't use the words numerically challenged and mathematically naive. Those are my words but he does imply this. For example he writes about noted anti-dam activist Shripad Dharmadhikary -

In his exhaustive critique of the Bhakra dam, noted anti-dam activist Shripad Dharmadhikary writes, ‘Even after the Sutluj flows were augmented by the transfer of Beas water into the Bhakra reservoir, the reservoir has not filled up in most of the years’4. This was probably intended as a critical comment on filling of the Bhakra reservoir. But its implication, which probably escaped Dharmadhikary, is – Bhakra is very successful in flood control. In the years, the dam did not even fill; it is obvious that all the floods were absorbed 100%. And this, despite transfer of a substantial quantity of water from Beas to Sutlej through the Beas–Sutlej link.

But its implication, which probably escaped Dharmadhikary,...

So I read this as meaning Dharmadhikary did not understand the topic well enough. It certainly doesn't read as meaning that Dharmadhikary churned out the numbers, didn't like what he saw and then ignored the finding.


  1. Interesting and provocative! I read Chetan Pandit's piece, and yes, it's an opinion, but at least it's from someone qualified to voice one. I liked his comment that "there are no solutions, only options" - and his "mother of all fallacies." The problems with the intellectual environment of many of these so-called "debates" is by no means unique to India - a daily glance at the UK and US media illustrates this dramatically.


  2. I wish more qualified scientists do come out and express their views like Pandit has. Indian scientists need to have a more public presence. Science is simply not discussed at all in the public space by the real experts.