The tsunamis of the mind

By Shiv Visvanathan, Ahmedabad

What can India learn from Japan? And what can India teach the world? How a nation copes with disaster is a sign of its democracy’s health — and whether it can move beyond mere technofixes and plumbing stereotypes.


The earthquake of March 2011 in Japan was big news, but news, whether on television or in newspapers, is mediated. You don’t get news neat — it is filtered, framed, edited before it reaches you. Sometimes catastrophes degenerate to comic strips in the act of communication.

The news of the Japanese earthquake was presented as a set of cameo pieces. There were first the representations of the body. People are seen struggling as the earthquake shattered their office equilibrium. The pandemonium at offices quickly leads to their emptying. The next frame shows people waiting at the station. They are watching the spectacle on big television screens. Trains are cancelled and there is no way to go home. The next frame keeps changing. It is the statistics of bodies missing. It begins from an estimate of 80 and goes up to 12,000 people. Bodies are not shown. The change is conveyed through this escalation, with numbers serving as a roll call of the missing.

The tsunami appears next, like a giant river, an Amazon sweeping away the flotsam and jetsam of houses and cars.

The next picture, almost postcard-like, is the nuclear plant. The first reports of leaks being contained are premature.

Indian television then juxtaposes Indian reactions to the news. What was presented as a horror story now acquires the everydayness of Indian soap opera.

The first response was of Indians desperate to leave. We suddenly discover that there is a population of over 25,000 Indians working in Japan. Now everyone wants to leave. What one notices about Indian expatriates — whether in Egypt during the fight for liberation or in Japan — is a sense of hysteria. They almost seem like rats ready to flee the ship. One never senses any sense of heroism and commitment to the place of work. Our expatriates appear to be a generation of meek mercenaries.

The second reaction was the idea among the establishment that this could happen only in Japan. Indians, they claimed, have a superior record in nuclear safety. As the crisis mounted, PM Manmohan Singh announced a safety audit of our nuclear plants.

Watching the entire narrative, the sequence of photographs often presented like distant postcards, one senses little sense of mourning apart from one candlelight vigil. There is little claim to solidarity. Japan seems to be receiving a litany of report cards evaluating the disaster.

In fact, the news of the disaster is juxtaposed between scams and our lukewarm performance in the cricket World Cup. It is as if three kinds of disaster are being reported. The question is: How does one read news of a disaster? Mikhail Bakhtin, the great Russian theorist, claimed that any encounter with another culture goes through three phases. The first is recognition, but almost as a form of distance. This phase is an act of appropriation where one culture projects its practices onto another. The second phase is a kind of ventriloquist identification. One recognises pain, suffering, exploitation — but through canned voices that create predictably canned sympathy. The third phase is dialogue. Here, one doesn’t succumb to the other discourse; one seeks a conversation with it.

Let’s try to understand the Indian interaction with the Japanese disaster through the third phase — reading what Japan as society, State and metaphor means. Let’s try to understand earthquakes and tsunamis within a wider sense of disasters.


A disaster is not merely a fact of nature or technology out there (then it is a mere threat or hazard that society has to respond to). A disaster as a rubric sums up a society’s way of thinking, interpreting, reconstructing and managing calamities. There are cultural styles, even schools of interpretation as rigid as any gharana. But one thing is clear. Disasters are not merely sites for action — aid and rescue — they are also sites for thought where a society rethinks its sense of competence, its ideas of suffering, its notions of memory and its concepts of dispensability.

Disasters in Japan and India are a way of life. The frequency of earthquakes and the never-ending cycle of floods, cyclones and famines reveal that disaster is a ritualised part of both societies. In fact, the disaster becomes a marker, even serving as a calendrical event. Visit a village and ask how old a child is and one might hear that ‘Muniya’ was born the year after the cyclone. During one of my first visits to Bhopal after 1984, one of the survivors took me to an Oriya slum near the railway station and showed me his little daughter. He had, almost ironically, named her ‘Gasmati’.

There is a difference we must emphasise. The Indian imagination is more at home with natural disasters. The Japanese — because of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the legendary case of mercury poisoning in Minamata — have a different sense of chemical and atomic disasters. Natural disasters are part of our Indian lifecycle, almost predictable calenderically, but chemical and technical disasters have not entered our imagination. Our response to Bhopal showed that we had no sense of how to evaluate a disaster. Our census of victims was an act of erasure. The official maps condensed the area of impact. Hundreds of bodies lying on roads and the railway station were thrown into the forests outside the city. Our courts had no conception of how to handle the case. (As an editorial in Nature so charitably put it, one of the great benefits of the Bhopal gas disaster was that we obtained a fuller understanding of Methyl Isocynate.) What normalised a disaster like Bhopal was corruption. Corruption and the bureaucratisation of the file transformed an almost cosmic problem into a humdrum one. The victim was spread out over an assembly line and milked or harassed ruthlessly by politicians, doctors, goons, social workers and clerks. Many discovered that a victim could not be a victim till they had a ration card.

If corruption “normalises” a disaster in India, the Japanese, one must confess, are not that transparent either. The Japanese response to disaster is to create a split-level world — a front stage and a backstage. The latter hides the survivor, who is often seen as an embarrassment. The Hibakusha, the survivors of the atomic blast, were stigmatised. In Minamata, the survivors almost disappeared from history because of the Japanese affinity for secrecy and erasure.

What are the strengths of the two societies in responding to disasters? The Japanese are systematic in disaster management. For instance, their earthquake standards are amongst the finest in the world. Indians tend to be more lethargic about disaster reform. Their skills, their sense of survival comes not from formal theories of management but from traditional styles of coping — the jugaad. We survive as foragers and scavengers. We make do. We survive on little.

One new element has, however, entered the disaster scene. If one looks at Orissa (1992) and Gujarat (2001), one confronts the emergence of new civil society groups, cultural and fundamentalist groups, sometimes just religious groups that provide new styles of rescue and competence. These include the RSS, the Ananda Marg, the Swaminarayan, the Ramakrishna Mission and the Sai Ashram. The political sociologist Chandrika Parmar in her Oxford thesis shows how these groups practice a different lifestyle. They display an austere way of life next to which NGO operations appear as acts of conspicuous consumption. What we witness are two approaches to suffering . These groups challenge the current ideas of a disaster in terms of local categories like seva, which goes beyond the non-egalitarian Victorian model of charity and philanthropy or the modern idea of aid. In these local categories the asymmetry of aid is countered by a more embracing sense of hospitality. These cultural groups centre their response around cooking and distribution of food. These groups, which can cook at the Kumbh mela, have no logistical problem feeding 30-40,000 people during a disaster. The survivor is treated as a guest and there is none of the minimalism of the State’s midday meal programme. This emergence of disaster as a theatre and laboratory for new categories is a major development.

One trope that always intrigues one about disasters is the language of control. The metaphor of repair is always of plumbing. The State feels its competence in governance is being questioned. Disaster management becomes the way of asserting that competence. One sees it in the readiness to announce that the leak has been contained. This hubris for control runs across both India and Japan, where security and secrecy add to the lack of transparency. The language of management and productivity creates an odd drama. People respond to suffering not as an experience but as a logistical problem. One hears State leaders talking of the number of tins of baby food dispatched, the number of blankets and medicines sent. This sounds a bit like Stalinist production statistics, where virtue was gauged by the tonnage of materials sent.

What one misses today is the language of suffering or pain. Worse, disaster managers often refuse to focus on the psychological. Even the recognition of trauma as a state of pain or distress for which one can obtain compensation is as recent as the 1970s. According to sociologist Kai Erickson, it was only after the 1972 Buffalo Creek Flood disaster in the US that trauma was considered a medical status, a form of being. Suffering is presented as a visual spectacle that inspires awe or sentiment. As a result, it needs media attention to generate a response. Humanitarianism, in that sense, is a media-dependent variable. When disasters disappear from news, they virtually cease to exist in public life.

The silence of suffering that follows cuts across both Indian and Japanese societies. Suffering needs to be treated as more than a spectacle. Suffering needs the sympathy of the ear. It demands the storyteller and the listener to create a chorus of meaning. Suffering in both societies has to go beyond the officialdom of rescue, relief and rehabilitation. In such a sequence, a body is seen as a machine to be repaired. A body beyond repair is obsolescent and abandoned. Whether it was Bhopal or Hiroshima, there was a sense of abandonment. The survivors were forced backstage and it took great writing, like Ibuse’s Black Rain or Robert Jurgk’s Children of the Ashes, to recreate atomic victimhood. Bhopal was not so lucky. It was well served by journalists but they could not create the poetry or the prose to keep Bhopal alive in the imagination.

One trope that always intrigues one about disasters is the language of control. The metaphor of repair is always of plumbing

Disasters present educational possibilities. They yield first a debate on democracy, and second a debate on science. One of the first things one notices about nucleardom worldwide is the idolatry of the expert. Democracy is discounted when the expert enters the scene. The expert’s knowledge, despite being exposed as questionable, retains the halo effect. Nuclear experts come on television and castigate leading journalists as nuclear illiterates. They throw tantrums that would humble a Rumpelstiltskin. In an odd kind of bias, anyone opposing nuclear installations is seen as anti-national or a security risk. But the unfolding of disasters and the behaviour of scientific expertise creates a sense of doubt, even of scepticism. The language of control is almost premature. One talks of containment only to rewrite the narrative every day. At least the Japanese have, through transparency, acquired a sense of humility before the epidemic of nuclear leaks. They don’t hide the fact that people have been exposed to leaks and quarantined. They create websites with half hourly reports. There is a sense of the magnitude of the problem even within the security hubris. Ask yourself a simple question: Which Indian nuclear installation is ready for transparency? All of them treat secrecy as a chastity belt.

Indian scientists, with a few diligent exceptions, act as nuclear cocks on the atomic walk, convinced that a Chernobyl is impossible in India. But what one senses in particular is the contempt of such enterprise for dissent. Indian science is almost Stalinist about dissent. Critics like the journalist Praful Bidwai and the activist Sunita Narain bring out the worst in them. It is from such behaviour that NGOs developed the idea of the Ramanna Scale. It is Richter in intent — it measures the Indian scientists’ intolerance to dissent. Raja Ramanna was a leading atomic bureaucrat who was utterly dismissive about anti-nuclear fears and branded dissenting journalists as anti-national.

Our current establishment must measure about seven on this scale. They are absolutely chagrined that the Japanese experience has threatened the future of the world’s biggest nuclear installation planned at Jaitapur. Unfortunately, our nuclear dons snootily seem to contend that it might happen in Japan, but not here. Such an arrogance — or its cousin, a cantankerousness — hides a deep layer of problems. Firstly, the local population has objected to the plant. When a locality objects, the scientists must listen. Reasons of State or national purpose cannot override local dissent. Such hierarchic logic left-handedly introduces the idea of triage, the rational disposability of a culture or group. Secondly, the new honeymoon of nucleardom that France and Japan have lead is over. Thirdly, Jaitapur is the location for some of the most intense biodiversity in India. Fourthly, even if honesty is too dense a responsibility, Indian science could try a whiff of transparency. It may not be as demanding as honesty but will serve as an adequate form of civility. Further, there is no sense of liability for nuclear damage. No insurance firm will insure a nuclear plant.


Disasters are often supposed to engineer paradigm shifts, tectonic movements in thought. The question one has to ask is: How do we look at the question of nuclear energy? The political and cultural debates of the 1960s, where the peace and anti-nuclear movements raised a wider set of questions, have disappeared. The nuclear question today appears to be articulated either in the language of management or technology. The nuclear honeymoon that had begun with over a 100 new nuclear plants on the drawing board is being threatened. Germany, under Angela Merkel, has ordered the closure of its oldest nuclear plants. The United States has piously restrained from building any new nuclear plants after the Three Mile Island catastrophe in 1979. There is a popular reaction against nuclear plants, yet the nature of the problem remains the same. Our establishment sees nuclear energy as a technical answer to a technical question. As a result, we have eliminated political and ethical frameworks. We have reduced it to a question of safety audits and to a choice of technologies. There has been an epidemic of safety review boards. But these audits are conducted by experts and atomic energy becomes a form of governance by experts, for experts, of experts. We have nuclear review boards that are in-house clubs. Few seem to ask the question: Who reviews the experts? People’s discomfort or protest is seen as an externality to be managed. Our Atomic Regulatory Board needs a wider group of professionals and activists to review its work. Till then, Manmohan Singh’s promise of safety review is knee jerk and piously shallow.

But beyond the bias of expertise is the existence of what the American biologist David Ehrenfeld once called ‘The Arrogance of Humanism’. Ehrenfeld argued that such a mindset presupposes that all problems are solvable. Secondly, it holds that all problems can be solved technologically. Thirdly, it always sees itself in terms of an economic calculus. Despite all caveats, nuclear energy is seen as inevitable. Those seeking to oppose it are accused of being anti-modern, illiterate, anti-rational or anti-scientific.

One of the challenges of the recent crisis is to make sure the nuclear debate is not capped. India, Japan and France have a vested interest in such a strategy. One is not clear whether India thinks the Jaitapur plant is necessary on its own grounds or because the French think it is necessary for Indo-French relations.

The challenge is, can disasters become a site for an alternative democratic imagination? The transition from Hiroshima to Fukushima must be a cognitive and ethical one. But for this, the nuclear mindset must go further.

A simple example illustrates this. Recently on television the secretary of the atomic energy commission was asked how safe our nuclear plants are. He replied that it is safer than crossing a road in Delhi. The official seemed pleased with his own joke. But a nuclear accident and a road crash are two different things. The quality of damage has to be seen differently. One also wonders at the official’s sense of the ordinary citizen. Does he think we are so illiterate? One wonders why our nuclear establishment is so knowledge-proof.

The imperviousness is at two levels. There is first an indifference to facts or protest, an attitude that sees other livelihoods as dispensable. Secondly, there is a question of knowledge itself. Scientific knowledge is not always anchored on certainty and predictability. To talk of nuclear energy as if it exists in a Newtonian world is inadequate. Today, science is based on the idea of risk, of a knowledge that we may not be fully sure about. The work of science studies experts like Sheila Jasanoff, John-Pierre Dupuy and particularly, Ulrich Beck show that knowledge itself has become problematic. Some forms are certain and predictable. Others are uncertain, but uncertainty here is of two kinds: uncertainty where the knowledge gap is temporary and the other uncertainty where knowledge may never be complete.

The idea of technological fixes reduces the complexity of this understanding. One positive response to this was the legal invention of the Polluter-Pays principle. This holds that an individual must compensate for damages even if he did not realize fully the dangers of his technology. The example of BPL oil spills illustrates this. But precaution alone is not enough. Precaution is like passive resistance. One needs recourse to prudence, to the availability of a humble science that breaks the technological hubris that sees every problem in terms of a technological solution. We need to incorporate the discourses of risk into our policy and knowledge systems.


When disasters become a site for the new treaties of science and democracy, we reach a third point that neither India nor Japan is ready for. India, with its new faith in technology and what it calls the demographic dividend, and Japan with its increasingly older population and a declining sense of its technological genius, may be at different points of development. But neither is ready for what disasters point to — the democratisation of democracy.

Why do I say that? In both countries, democracy has become open to technofixes. In both, the ordinary citizen has had little to say about science and technology. Both countries seem to think that expert reputation and a few procedural fixes are a guarantee of democracy. Both confuse the idea of ventilation with transparency and the honest articulation of doubt. In that sense, disasters provide the possibility where debates on scientific knowledge and debates on democracy intersect around issues of life, lifecycle, life world, lifestyle and livelihood. The celebration of democracy can no longer rely on the old stereotypes. Science can no longer be about control and containment. It has to be a search for meaning and community. In its search for industrialisation, Japan has devastated the forests of Indonesia and Malaysia. India, in turn, has created an epidemic of internal refugees through development. Both countries need to learn from a more cosmopolitan critique of science and technology stemming from new readings of knowledge. Both India and Japan have thrived on the hegemony of the experts. Both countries have been unresponsive to the new debates on scientific knowledge, demanding greater democratisation.

One challenge of the recent crisis is to ensure the nuclear debate is not capped. India, Japan and France have a vested interest in that happening

It is Europe that is today reading the Enlightenment. One way of doing so is to handle your nuclear waste, shut down your nuclear plants and understand that rationality disguises the inability to control. The sudden spate of tsunamis and nuclear leaks might trigger the logic for such an exercise. We need new theatres to explore science and technology that go beyond the current oppositions of State and civil society, expert and laymen. It requires a new kind of ethics that transcends the idea of socio-technical audits. One hopes that disasters become the site for a new democracy which forgets electoral clichés and a stereotyped sense of science as progress.


As news pours in day after day, one realises the situation has changed. There is a sense of anxiety in the air. The channels replay the same pictures of the plant. Only now, one adds to it a commentary about increasing radiation leaks. Over a 100 people have been quarantined for high exposure. Instead of the usual bureaucratic briefing, the Japanese emperor went on air requesting calm, asking communities to work with each other. The heroism and the dignity of the Japanese people is impressive.

In my mind’s eye, the photographs blur. They change in texture with each report, acquire different colours as radiation intensifies. My mind’s palette has converted the photograph to an impressionist painting, where shadows seem real. Watching it, India still acts as if things are normal. Some things have changed. The confidence is gone. A new glossary of words appears as we approach Chernobyl thresholds. A sadness lingers in the air. It is the sadness of an unstated death and futile hope.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist and an anthropologist currently teaching in Ahmedabad. He has held visiting professorships at London, Massachusetts, Stanford and Arizona. He is currently completing a book on dissenting imaginations in science called The Loneliness of a Long Distance Scientist

[email protected]

Images: Sudeep Chaudhuri

Source: Tehelka

Girl with candle Bhopal

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