The Sindhurakshak submarine tragedy has shaken the country badly. Apart from valuable loss of 18 Naval personnel, an important part of our armoury has been destroyed. The board of inquiry will hopefully come to clear conclusions, based on evidence and analysis, which will not only explain the tragedy but help pave the way for correctives for the future. There could only be three possible bases to investigate—a manufacturing flaw, or indiscipline/carelessness/non-conformance to procedure, or sabotage.
The submarine was refitted and overhauled only two years ago in Russia. The Russian authorities have categorically made a statement that there could be no manufacturing defect or flaw—they have washed their hands off, suggesting that the explosion and destruction is not relatable to them. Senior Naval officers have mentioned that the maintenance procedures and other operational processes are extremely well controlled, and the failure could not be attributed to this. In another context, they have also stated that there are many perimeters of security around the Naval dockyard area in Mumbai, as also on entry into the submarine. This is the conundrum that the inquiry board will have to crack and come up with a credible answer.
Whichever way you look at it, the scenario is depressing. One would assume the highest standards in the manufacturing process, including the quality of materials used, along with adequacy, capacity and strength of the pipelines and fittings, in the making of a high-grade submarine. Our own armed forces are extremely disciplined—presumably there are detailed manuals which are followed consistently to the letter. An act of sabotage in a high security Naval area, inside a Naval vehicle is very difficult to accomplish. Thus, whichever it turns out to be, it will be a matter of major national concern.
The Fukushima disaster took place only two years ago; latest information trickling out is that dangerous radio-active water is still escaping the valves of the closed down units, whose potential danger to public safety is quite high—these are reports of only a few days ago. After Fukushima, nearly every country did a major re-appraisal of its nuclear power policy—many decided to discontinue such facilities; others, like Germany, decided not to go in for any more nuclear power. Unbelievably, India has been alone in embarking on a brand new round of third-generation nuclear power plants—this defies all credulity. In addition we have agreed to a ridiculous and inexplicable agreement which essentially absolves the manufacturer from liability. To an infinitesimal extent, one could condone the energisation of the Kodankulam project, despite its older second-generation technology, since it was practically fully built. Note that all three possibilities which could have contributed to the Sindhurakshak disaster could attend on a new nuclear plant —except that the human damage will be at least of 10,000 times larger in magnitude, and will last for decades.
With no disrespect to the Indian worker, surely he is not the most disciplined in the world—not more than, say, the German or Japanese. Alas, tragically the potential for sabotage of any installation in India is higher than anywhere else in the world—note that the Sindhurakshak was in the highest category security zone. Foreign manufacturers are all not angels—manufacturing defects indeed are possible, however minor the probability is.
Changing gear slightly, the Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India Act is being fast-tracked in Parliament and the government is keen to push it through at the earliest—astonishingly, as a ‘reform’ measure. Strong warning signals have emanated from knowledgeable sources, both in India and abroad, of the vital preconditions that need to be set fully in place, before embarking on a move, fraught with major long-term risks to our agriculture sector. The issue of open field trials for GM crops, emerging from the brake put on GM brinjal, is pending in the Supreme Court—the court-appointed technical committee has already opined that it is much too premature to embark on open trials in India, as many preconditions are not met. Note that government is determined to rush in head-long in this direction, with unimaginable adverse potential consequences for our agriculture, without taking care that we are 200 per cent sure. Indeed, the latest Time magazine cover story on ‘a World without Bees’ is a warning on the dangers of interfering with phenomena not fully understood in the context of agriculture and food consumption. New technology is imperative—but with total assurance of no risk to mankind. The point to stress is, all the three possibilities—basic fault in research design, poor preparation and management, sabotage—are possible areas which can visit our GM sector. Fools strut where angels fear to tread.
Our Prime Minister is shortly going to the US and will meet Obama—there is promise of significant ‘decisions’. One hopes that this will not be in the form of two more nuclear plants, or more arm-twisting by Monsanto or others on GM. Sindhurakshak is an ominous reminder to us to hasten slowly, indeed pause and review, before we embark on new adventures in the atomic energy or genetically modified crops areas.
(Subramanian is a former Cabinet Secretary. Email: email@example.com)