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When India let Chernobyl-contaminated butter enter its kitchen

Sonali Huria | Updated on: 29 April 2018, 11:51 IST
(Sergei Supinskya / AFP)

The nuclear accident at Chernobyl last week marked its 32nd anniversary as we continue to discuss if nuclear lobbies and governments have engendered further devastation by their stout refusal to learn from the accident. It remains an undeniable truth that the calamitous accident and its multi-faceted impacts are still unfolding.

Newer studies and observations appear every year and expand our understanding of the irreversible havoc caused by the world's first major nuclear meltdown. The most comprehensive recent study pegs the worldwide cancer-deaths due to Chernobyl at nearly one million. 

In 1988, 3,000 tons of butter contaminated with radioactive fallout from Chernobyl made its way to the Bombay port, imported from Ireland by the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB). While most Asian countries, including Japan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Philippines and Singapore placed stringent restrictions on food items, particularly meat and dairy products from the countries belonging to the European Economic Community (EEC), India's nuclear establishment and food regulation authorities looked the other way. 

In fact, it was only in 1988, after the Supreme Court had pulled up the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) for the distressing absence of safety standards and mechanisms to test imported food for radioactivity that such regulations and enforcement mechanisms were finally put in place.

In this regard, the matter was brought before the Supreme Court through a petition filed by Dr Shiurao Shantaram Wagle in 1987 against the Union of India, challenging the decision of the Government to continue importing food from EEC countries even as fallouts of the Chernobyl accident were increasingly becoming publicly known.

The EEC governments in western Europe had been quick to ban import of food items from eastern Europe, even from places a thousand kilometers from Chernobyl. This, however, did not stop the spread of contamination from Chernobyl as radiation does not obey boundaries drawn on political maps.

Significant amount of radioactive contamination soon made its way to western Europe through air and water. Radionuclides like Cesium-137 with a half life period of 30 years, contaminated the soil in these countries, followed by the countries’ vegetation and then animals, as radioactivity has been known to concentrate along the food chain.

Dr Surendra Gadekar, nuclear physicist and founder of Anumukti, remembering the episode, stated in an interview that Dr Wagle's battle began in late 1986. At that time the Maharashtra State Government Employees Confederation, spearheaded by him first, cautioned the government against releasing the butter, thus, compelling a recalcitrant NDDB and the Greater Bombay Milk Scheme (GBMS) to get tests conducted by Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) to determine radionuclide contamination in the butter.

“But the widely different results of the test, coupled with enormous flaws in collecting samples for the tests and the determination of the state government to go ahead with marketing the butter, forced Wagle to move the Bombay High Court.”

Initially, the High Court granted a stay petition and tons of butter remained on-board the cargo ship near Bombay port for several months. The petitioner argued that the government's recourse to “permissible limit” of radioactivity was illogical and outdated, as it implied 'an acceptable level of risk including risk of death'. Moreover, argued the petition, "maximum limits are normally expressed in the terms of annual intake for a statistically "standard" man: they are not adjusted for specially-vulnerable sections like pregnant women, children and malnourished infants". 

The litigant also argued that the "permissible levels" were based on an extrapolation from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki data to low doses on linear basis. This procedure was seriously flawed as admitted even by the International Council of Radiation Protection (ICRP). At the very least, the petitioners demanded, the NDDB must be asked to label the origin of its products, as it was denying people the right to decide for themselves whether or not to consume potentially radioactive-contaminated food.

In this court case, an important testimony came from George Wald, Nobel Laureate and Professor of Biology at Harvard University, whose letter to the Bombay High Court stated: "in reality no threshold exists for damaging effects of ionising radiation or radioactive material ingested or respired. Any level may result in some damage; more does more damage. From that viewpoint, every dose is an overdose.

“So-called 'permissible levels' of exposure are compromises with convenience, economic pressures, business interests and political expediency, superimposed on a consideration for health. Ideally all such exposure should be avoided. The presence of unavoidable background radiation, perhaps even larger than is offered by some new source, is no excuse for accepting the added threat of the new source.”

However, unfortunately, the High Court had to rely on the opinion of official experts as it had no expertise of its own on such technical matters, and because in India, nuclear experts are tied to the nuclear establishment by default, and even the regulator, AERB lacks independence. This led to an adverse outcome with court removing the stay. Subsequently, 78 tons of butter was unfrozen and the NDDB fed it to people of India by mixing it with various products.

While delivering the judgment, however, the judges admitted that "having regard to the magnitude, complexity and technical nature of the enquiry involved in the matter and keeping in view the far-reaching implications, we must at the outset clearly indicate that a judicial proceeding of the nature initiated is not an appropriate one for determination of such matters."

Disappointed with the judgment, Dr. Wagle said in an interview to the Lawyers' Collective magazine, then edited by Indira Jaisingh: "The Supreme Court seems to have placed too much reliance on the Experts Committee. First of all, they are not experts in the required field. Moreover the Expert Committee has not dealt with any of the contentions raised by us in the petition... The tendency of the courts to dispose off matters in this manner is not correct and is going to lead to disastrous results in the long run."

The judgment was not an aberration. In India, the Judiciary seldom delivered a verdict that went against India’s nuclear establishment, which comes directly under the Prime Minister’s Office and enjoys unquestioned political patronage as well as insulation from public scrutiny.

"In matters such as nuclear, the Court has no expertise of its own. This knowledge gap is invariably filled by the DAE, which has not allowed other institutions to develop expertise in this field. By default then the ‘experts’ consulted by the Courts are ‘government experts’,” Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan said. 

Not much has changed in India even 32 years after Chernobyl. While a CAG report has exposed India's continued denial of radiation risks in the country and the AERB remains as toothless as it was in the 1980s, the Narendra Modi government surreptitiously withdrew the restrictions on food imports from Japan after the Fukushima nuclear accident, even as most countries continue to ban and strictly monitor radioactive-contaminated food.

First published: 29 April 2018, 11:51 IST