Murder by negligence: From university laboratory to scrap yard

Rajesh Kochhar

THE world has sat up and taken note of the recent mishap in Delhi where trashed radioactive material — Cobalt 60 — has already killed a person and severely damaged many others. Cobalt 60 is an artificially produced radio isotope which emits extremely energetic radiation. It is routinely used the world over in treatment of cancer as well as in lab research. Accident occurred when a Delhi scrap worker innocently tried to dismantle the protective metal container in which the dangerous isotope came packaged.
One had earlier hoped that the radioactive material came to the scrap yard from abroad or through the work of a petty thief. The fact that the culprit was Delhi University makes one sad and angry at the same time. Imagine a handful of trained terrorists rounding up radioactive material from the scrap yards, assembling a dirty bomb and detonating it at a time and place of their choosing. (I can very well visualise the national response: India will not be cowed down by such cowardly acts.)
The Delhi University Vice-Chancellor has publicly apologised and owned moral responsibility. But moral responsibility makes sense only if it follows fixing of material responsibility and handing out punishment the severity of which is commensurate with the magnitude of the crime.
Our response so far has been disappointingly true to type. Whenever a fatal accident occurs, the government announces compensation with a haste bordering on indecency. It is as if payment of death money or offer of government job not only condoles death but condones it also. Of course, one can justify such ex-gratia payments on the ground that they are meant to meet the affected families’ immediate requirements. But then, these moneys should be recovered from the persons found guilty, and not be a charge on the government.
Again displaying a knee-jerk reaction, the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development has asked the University Grants Commission to frame guidelines for the universities on procurement, use and disposal of hazardous substances. There are already in place such regulations and guidelines, issued by bodies more powerful and credible than the UGC such as the Atomic Energy Commission and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Even if the UGC lays down its guidelines, they can only be a paraphrase of extant ones. The first thing to find out is whether extant rules have been followed or not. If it is discovered in the light of actual experience that rules and regulations need to be amended or strengthened, such an exercise should be taken up. Whenever a tragedy occurs, we baulk at finding out what exactly went wrong, who was responsible and how such tragedies can be averted. Instead, our response is a phlegmatic Jo hona tha so ho gaya (What was to happen has come to pass).
Whenever any item is purchased with government funds, it is immediately entered into a stock register. The stock entry gives the details of the product, supplier, price, etc. Removing an item from a government stock register is a non-trivial exercise. A committee appointed by the department chairman, headed by a senior faculty member and comprising technical experts must identify items to be disposed off. The proceedings of this committee must be approved by the chairman who is professionally qualified to do so.
While a duly appointed enquiry committee will hopefully flesh out the details, prima facie it is clear that the Delhi University Chemistry Department worthies, notwithstanding their doctorates, assumed or prayed for reasons of convenience that four decades would have rendered the radioactive source harmless if not actually benign.
It may not be out of place to make a couple of points the importance of which goes beyond the current tragedy. During the Second World War, throughout the world, scientific experts were taken away from the universities and pressed into government war effort. But as soon as the war needs were over, universities were restored. Most regrettably, what was a contingency plan for the West was made into a national policy by independent India.
We have precipitously devalued our universities and pumped in all our capital and human resource into national labs. Promotion policies are driven by trade unionism rather than merit. Practical training, school upwards, has been given up. The quality of textbooks and teaching has come down.
A hundred years ago when Europe honoured Jagdish Chandra Bose for his pioneering radio wave researches, Rabindranath Tagore with poetic excess declared Bose to be God’s instrument in removing India’s shame. Those were indeed the days when God operated through the West. It would not have crossed Tagore’s or anybody else’s mind to demand why God could not deal directly with India. The Prime Minister, the Science Minister and eminent scientists downwards, we have been concerned with making an impact on the West by publishing research in high-impact, well-cited international journals so that we can pass off as a modern nation. Science education, broad-based pursuit of science, and integration of science into society and economy in general have all been ignored.
All our scientific efforts have consistently been directed at contriving the tip of an iceberg except that the rest of the iceberg is not invisible but non-existent. An Indian-born Venki getting Nobel Prize in Chemistry is not India. A university chemistry professor handing over a hazardous radioactive source to an illiterate scrap worker in Delhi is.
The 17th century English statesman, George Savile, Marquess of Hastings, justified death penalty for horse thieves in these memorable words: “Men are not hanged for stealing Horses, but that Horses may not be stolen.” Some hangings have long been due in India.

(The Tribune Chandigarh (Op-Ed) 16 May 2010)

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