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Sunday, July 06, 2008

‘expert’ and ‘expert consultation’ on policy issues

Yesterday’s news headlines read how the Samajwadi leader Mulayam Singh had decided to support the struggling UPA government on the nuclear deal after he sought and received ‘expert’ advice from the man credited with the second nuclear bomb testing and the former President Dr. Abdul Kalam on the issue. Interestingly Amar Singh the secretary of the Samajwadi party mentioned in the press meet that Mulayam singh will decided the experts who will be consulted on this issue. Based on the news reports Kalam is the only ‘expert’ consulted.
Perhaps the role of expert in this case was notional as the SP had already decided to side with the congress on this deal and Kalam filled the convenient gap (as he did during his Presidency). But, the larger question that it throws light is on the definition of the word ‘expert’ in our public discourse and the larger perception and understanding of the need of and the purpose behind an expert consultation.
In a recent interview with Tehelka, noted thinker Ashish Nandy talks about how our political system is undermined with alien categories. Not just our political categories, but, our policies making processes too are guided by such principles.  Specifically in the areas of technology there seems to be no bigger ‘authority’ than that of an ‘expert’ in the said technology, leave aside the fact that the impact of the policy on technology is on everyone not merely on the experts alone.
So, all through the nuclear deal debate we have had anyone with a vague involvement with the scientific establishment, repeatedly consulted over media and public sphere. We assume that the will be able to give an impartial and unbiased opinion on an issue of national significance that has not as much to do with the technology as much as the national demand on the technology and what it claims to achieve.
Surely the needs of the nation and the achievements are functions beyond technology, which is only a means and not an end in itself. If the question was posed as to what are the electrical energy demands of the nation, what are its applications, how significant are these applications in the national priority, how important is it to sustain these applications, what are the levels of efficiencies in our current electrical energy utilization, are these optimized, have we managed to make the best use of them, how much do we need to pay for these electrical energy needs, etc., we may find that the questions automatically broaden the scope of engagement and the role of ‘experts’ on this issue. Much of our questions on technology policy are rather limited and often the solutions are para-phrased as questions and the questions didn’t arise in our minds till the solutions were presented to us.
A few years back, S.M. Krishna as the then Chief Minister of Karnataka had opined that anyone who did not possess a formal qualification in the field of biotechnology was not eligible to discuss the Genetic Modification issue. Time and again we see such statements being made on the role of experts by politicians willing to pursue a certain policy.
With the political structure becoming increasingly weak and the leaders having neither the courage nor the knowledge to make any decisions on their own, they seem to rely upon the bureaucrats, judiciary and technocrats to make the decisions for them. Whether such a policy would ruin their political status being their only concern, everything else seems to be of no consequence all together. Inability to tackle the increasingly vocal media and knowledgeable civil society also seems to corner them to adopt such respite. The media is just overwhelmed and civil society challenged polemically through such ‘expert’ involvement. The media is dictated by its time constraints and the civil society by their resource constraints.  
What are our definitions of expert or expertise in the sphere of public good or national importance? What are the competencies we expect from such experts? Is position of power such as judiciary or bureaucracy or association with a scientific establishment adequate for such experts? Who among these represent the ‘aam admi’ interests and the betterment of the nation?

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