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The superbug meets the suprabug of Indian polity — jingoism

by Shiv Visvanathan, 18 April 2011

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From: The Times of India

Challenge science with fact not jingoism

Shiv Visvanathan

The strange thing about controversies is that the logic of the text often loses out to the power of context. The myth of science has, as its ideal a value-free truth, a fact free from the colours of ethnicity, ideology or market interest. Controversies in science do not always follow the ideal.

Instead of a rational resolution by a peer group based on evidence, what we often get is a soap opera, where scientists slug it out, utterly indifferent to their professional roles. Consider the superbug controversy. It begins as an article in The Lancet, a prestigious and professional British medical journal, in August 2010. The journal publishes an article by Cardiff university scientists which observes that the water supply in Delhi has doses of the NDM-1 gene, which creates superbugs that trigger cholera and dysentery.

One must admit that the naming is a standard practice. But the naming here becomes lethal because of its mnemonic and labelling power. It is all right if basmati or champagne is seen geographically. It adds to its power as intellectual property but a bug named after its region of location lowers the market value of the region as tourist potential. Worse, such an act of scientific christening evokes a sense of pollution about the area conveying a negative sense of well-being, sanitation and hygiene.

Now if a scientific fact were only a scientific fact, doctors would have met the argument by challenging it either with the empirical power of evidence, the statistical nature of the fact or the professionalism of the interpretation. The article would have been met with a well-behaved, well-marshalled rejoinder. Scientific issues whether on nuclear reactors, Bt Brinjals or superbugs rarely produced such well-behaved science. Science joins the costume ball of political and corporate interests.

The Indian medical establishment, politicians and the media reacted with concern but the concern was for Delhi’s reputation. A city barely having recovered from the scandal of the Commonwealth Games could hardly afford a new scandal—especially an epidemic or a virus that is difficult to control.

The superbug threatened a variety of egos and interests. The naming of the bug after Delhi was seen as an insult. As a wag put it why malign a city, when a post box number could have served as an ID tag? The presence of the superbug challenges the competence of politicians. They are morally meant to be the keepers of hygiene. A superbug in the water becomes a challenge to Delhi’s claim to good governance. Hygiene is to governance what chastity is to an individual. Third, it challenges a rising industry— medical tourism. This industry is built not just on lower costs and high efficiency but on a a boy scout reputation. The establishment retaliates with speed, questioning the study’s sampling technique, the "singling out of Delhi", and the economic basis. It suggests it was inspired by a desire to promote certain pharmaceutical interests. Suddenly a bald fact acquires a baggage of other insinuations. Indian doctors retaliate that it is an attempt to threaten medical tourism and that the NHS record needs a detailed study. The media feels India has been insulted, convinced in its jingoism that the superbug cannot be a swadeshi effort. A conspiracy transforms a scientific debate into a cultural war.

Our responses were too bureaucratic and ideological. Our health secretary wakes like Rip van Winkle and claims the study did not have the mandatory bureaucratic clearances. He goes one stage further by claiming the samples were intellectual property and insisting that "biological materials can’t be exported without permission". Suddenly the bug seems to be pre-eminently native, circulating freely in the city of 17 million people.

The superbug as a scientific fact has met the suprabug of Indian polity—jingoism. A fear is a fear so long as it lacks an Indian marker. History is important here because there has been a tendency to ethnicize bacteria and viruses by locating their source in Africa or India. Tropical medicine always had a touch of colonial ideology. But oddly, when Indian science speaks on an issue, it sees itself as immaculately bias-free and sanitized of ideology or economic interest. There is often a double register of suspicion and immaculate science serving to protect science and governance in India.

The challenge before us is simple. Either India responds to science in scientific terms. Our scientists need to realize that a scientific fact is not value free. There are biases that surround it, which one must be sensitive about. Also, do we have to treat health and hygiene as chastity belts or can we realize vulnerability is a global phenomenon, which has to be responded to locally and globally? Why raise a scandal when we can be matter-of-fact? Why be jingoist or anti-colonial when we can be more at ease with science? Is meeting science with science a lost art form? Why do we behave like a church responding to a low-level Galileo? Can we anthropologize British fears of hygiene and immunity after Chadwick and Lord Lister and show that our cultures (bacterial and anthropological) have less to be afraid of? Is the inquisition still a permissible response to science? Imagine if the roles were reversed, would we respond the same way? The superbug has infected us all right. It shows we lack immunity to certain kinds of questions and our sense of science is still skin deep.

( The writer is a social scientist)