Confronting NEERI

On September 14, 2006, Rishi Singh, the former director of India’s NEERI (the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute), came to the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources to give a talk on environmental policy in India. After some invaluable priming from Indra on NEERIs role in exacerbating the post-1984 Bhopal fiasco, I went to the conference prepared to ask some pointed questions.
Mr. Singh’s talk basically centered on the glorious ideals of the Indian constitution, the many applications involved in trying to realize these ideals, and NEERI’s crucial role in making India’s strong environmental standards a reality. Needless to say, one of the important steps he emphasized towards making environmental policy work was making sure that it wasn’t too strict for industry to keep up. Poor industry…
Anyway, when he finally stopped talking, I asked my question, which went something like this:
In 1997, NEERI released a study claiming that the groundwater near the site of the 1984 for Union Carbide chemical disaster in Bhopal was safe for drinking. However, only a few years later Greenpeace did their own study and found that the water was extremely contaminated, and not at all safe for drinking, and to this day it is generally accepted to be toxic.
More recently, NEERI was involved in a failed cleanup effort of the Union Carbide site in which local people were brought in to clean up the toxic chemicals with bare hands and feet, after which many of them were severely ill.
What effect do you think NEERI’s involvement in such fiascoes has on its credibility as an environmental research organization, and even on your own credibility as an expert on environmental policy in India?

Mr. Singh was silent for a moment. Then he began to explain that he thought the research had been well done (even though it was obviously wrong), that neither of these actions had taken place during his time at NEERI, and that maybe I should read the 1996 report to understand the idiosyncrasies of the researchers conclusions. He talked for quite awhile and seemed to be well aware that everyone in the room was aware of the inadequacies of his answers.
I replied: So then, NEERI accepts no responsibility for the many people who are now extremely ill from drinking the water which they claimed was safe?
Mr. Singh was silent for a long time. He looked at me and I looked back at him. He didn’t seem to be able to remove his gaze from my own, and I was quite enjoying dragging the silence out as long as possible. He kind of stuttered or murmured a bit a couple of times, but no words came out. Finally, the host of the event, another hydrological scientist who had invited him to give the talk stepped in and recounted how, in his many decades of work, he had occasionally also done studies that turned out to be flawed. After all, environmental science is complex stuff, and everyone makes mistakes.
That was enough for me. The elephant was thoroughly in the room, and I let Mr. Singh move on to other questions. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t seem to be able to get over the fact that he’d been stumped. When other people asked him questions about entirely unrelated things, for example the right to information act, he kept coming back to the Bhopal issue as if maybe relating it that could somehow put him in the clear. It was nice to see that, at least for those 15 minutes or so, he was having trouble shaking the issue.

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