Friday, September 25, 2009

Hollowing Institutions

The Atomic Energy Commission acted like a kangaroo court on an issue that is vital for our security

National Security Adviser, M.K. Narayanan has said that the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which comprises “a peer group of scientists”, last week came out with the “most authoritative” statement on the efficacy of the 1998 nuclear tests and no more clarification was required from the government.

This sounds authoritative, and even definitive. Till you look closer, and two points stick out. First, the AEC is an arm of the Department of Atomic Energy, in fact chaired by Anil Kakodkar, its current head.
It is the DAE’s assessment of the thermonuclear test of 1998 that is on trial. Yet, the NSA insists “They [AEC] were satisfied in 1998 and they were satisfied in 2009.” Ergo, there is nothing to discuss .
The AEC is not a peer group of scientists as Narayanan claims. Just check up the DAE website and you will discover the horrific truth. Besides Kakodkar, it comprises of worthies like Prithviraj Chavan, Minister in the PMO, K.M. Chandrashekhar, Cabinet Secretary , Ashok Chawla, Finance Secretary, T.K. A. Nair, Principal Secretary to the PM, S.V. Ranganath, an IAS officer, and M.K Narayanan himself.

Anil Kakodkar, DAE chief and National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan

There are two more nuclear physicists—S. Banerjee and M.R. Srinivasan and two others P. Rama Rao, a metallurgist and C.N.R. Rao, a chemist, and K. Muralidhar, a management functionary at the DAE. To sum up, there are seven bureaucrats and five scientists , in the commission. Could these people have provided the “most authoritative” statement on the efficacy of the 1998 nuclear tests?


What does this say about the office of the National Security Adviser himself ? Confronted with a problem, he is choosing to sweep it under the carpet. The charge that the hydrogen bomb test did not achieve the desired result has not been made by Santhanam alone, though his testimony is hugely important.
It was made by another arm of the government—the Aviation Research Centre—formerly the technical wing of R&AW. The ARC seismic array at Karnal, specifically designed to pick up underground nuclear tests, too, came to the conclusion that the thermonuclear test was a “fizzle.”
The government was thus provided three sets of reports—a 50-page report by the DRDO based on the on-site instrumentation that it had set up, a detailed report based on the seismic readings picked up by the ARC in its various facilities, and a report by the DAE based on some seismic instruments it had brought onsite at the last minute.

K. Santhanam during the course of a press conference in New Delhi

So there were two sets of instruments at Pokhran on May 11 and three sets of readings available to the government. Any National Security Adviser would have constituted a high-level specialist group to get to the bottom of the issue. Instead, Mr Narayanan is choosing the classic Indian method of shooting the messenger.
Narayanan’s casual approach to the issue is symptomatic of his functioning as the NSA. When he assumed office, there were great expectations that an intelligence professional would carry out the deep reforms needed in our intelligence services. But his first term has been disappointing, to say the least.
He did not even press the reforms that had been recommended by the NDA government’s group of ministers. So, the Multi Agency Centre to coordinate anti-terrorism activity failed to take root till the Mumbai attack which was only late last year. The National Technical Research Office which was to take over all the high-tech intelligence functions was given a step-child treatment through most of the term.
It was, again, only after Mumbai carnage that crucial projects and funds for the outfit were approved. As for the country’s external intelligence organization, the Research & Analysis Wing, it is true that it was already suffering from problems before Narayanan became the intelligence czar. Unfortunately, he has done little about them and the outfit continues to suffer from low morale and a lack of direction.
It is more difficult to assess Narayanan’s role as the Special Representative (SR) for the talks on China. In the first part of the same TV interview in which he excoriated Santhanam, the NSA boasted that the last round of the border talks he had with his counterpart Dai Bingguo in August, was the best among the nine rounds of meetings the two officials had had till now.
This is clearly a shading of the truth. The Special Representative process came after eight rounds of border talks between 1981 and 1987 and an additional 14 Joint Working Group meetings between 1988 and 2003. The job of the SRs was to quickly clinch the border issue. There was every indication that agreement was in sight in April 2005 when Wen Jiabao came to New Delhi and signed the agreement on political parameters and guiding principles of defining the Sino-Indian border. Then something changed. Mr Narayanan is entitled not to tell us what happened. But surely he should not pass of a stalled process, a failure, as a success.


The NSA’s office, or the AEC are actually symptomatic of the state of institutions in the country. Take an example from another extreme—the National Human Rights Commission. In its short history, there has been just about one ruling—that on Gujarat —through which the body has upheld its own mandate. Since then things have done downhill. The low-point has been the manner in which it dismissed the Batla House encounter by upholding the police inquiry instead of conducting its own investigation and hearings.
Then take the other institution on which such great hopes were placed, the Central Vigilance Commission. After a thunderous beginning the institution has now lapsed from public consciousness. We know the reason. It has been neutered. The next institution that is likely to suffer the same fate is the Central Information Commission.


With Wajahat Habibullah as head, the outfit has aggressively pursued the rights of the citizens for information. Soon he will retire and the government has given indications that it will put a pliant official at the head of the institution.
The Congress party must take a major share of the blame for this state of affairs. It has always had a “system destructive” attitude towards institutions. Indira Gandhi did something to the GOP’s DNA that compels it to take the low road when it comes to shoring up institutions. A manifestation of this was the appointment of Navin Chawla, a bureaucrat closely identified to the party, as the Chief Election Commissioner on the eve of the general elections.
So now we have the AEC— its founding resolution was proudly tabled in the Lok Sabha by Jawaharlal Nehru himself in March 1958— behaving more like a kangaroo court than an impartial group of officials and scientists who steer the country’s nuclear policy.
The hardening of the arteries of institutions, especially those related to science, is a phenomena that affects many countries. But when it happens in a young nation, one that still has a long way to go to establish itself, then it is the sign of a life-threatening disease.
This article appeared in Mail Today September 23, 2009

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