What’s the worst thing that could happen? And how could we reliably prevent it?

Our planet seems to have outlived the wild-eyed man who used to wander along London’s Oxford Street, his sandwich board revealing to all the precise expiry date of the world. There are, still, plenty of people who spend their time worrying about asteroids that are on collision paths with earth, or mutant bacteria that will coat the planet with green goo. I recommend not being seated beside such clairvoyants on your next long journey.

Elemental fury: Ships fighting oil refinery fires on Japan’s east coast. Kyodo News/AP

This plague of ills has descended upon one of the world’s most risk-averse societies—and one that has spent considerable thought and a good chunk of its prodigious wealth in protecting itself from calamity.

Our first thoughts in this awful time for Japan must be with its remarkable people. But the events should also raise doubts and uncertainties for countries elsewhere, in both the developed and developing worlds. How prepared are we for emergencies and their unforeseen spirals? How secure are our scientific choices and technological solutions? How solid and catastrophe-proof is our economic foundation? At root, these are questions about the soundness of our choices, and how much exposure to risk they entail.

In India, at this moment in history, we’re not good at thinking about risk. Instead we valorize speed, sweep and impatience. Our large inherited problems and our sense of a narrow window of global opportunity lead us into choices that emanate bravado, and may create unmanageable risks.  

Calculated risks

For one of the greatest economic powers in the world, Japan has been strikingly cautious. One might not think so, after a stroll through Tokyo’s bass-beat Harajuku neighbourhood, with its fashion-and-gadget-obsessed youth; yet even here, fashionability is more conformist than experimental. This is a society where people suffering from a common cold are expected to wear a face mask so as not to spread germs to others, and where the risk aversion of the Japanese consumer has totally confounded successive governments. Government efforts at economic stimulus in the form of credits and handouts have only led the Japanese to save more—and not spend.

Much of Japan’s caution lies in memory. The country’s recent history is one shaken by both nature’s waywardness and human hubris. In the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, some 100,000 people died, mainly in fires that followed the quake. In August 1945, Japan’s militaristic campaign to dominate Asia culminated in nuclear devastation: the dropping of two atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That history has instilled in the Japanese an abiding wariness.  

Post-war, Japan built a society based on rational calculation of risks, which it came to believe could be handled by its extraordinary technological prowess. Thus, despite being located on the rim of one of the world’s major earthquake zones, Japan chose to urbanize by building towering, nature-defying skyscrapers. Equally, despite its cruel experience of atomic destruction, it chose to generate one-third of the electricity that powered its economic miracle from nuclear fission. In both cases, it invested massively in developing construction technologies to resist earthquake stress.

And yet: A society that has lived its growth with relative sobriety and caution, has thought a great deal about risks and invested to prevent against them, now stands hugely exposed. Today, the future of Japan’s capital city, and of a major share of the country’s economic power, is being gauged by calculations, literally, about which way the wind is blowing. If radioactive vapours are released from the damaged reactors at Fukushima, will the wind carry them away from one of the world’s most densely populated cities—or towards it? “Everything hinges on Fukushima," Nomura’s chief Japan equity strategist told the Financial Times. Markets have engaged in panic selling of Japanese stocks, and it seems that traders are relying as much on hourly weather bulletins as on quarterly company reports.

The India parallel

India today in some ways appears to be Japan’s alter ego. Where the latter has an ageing, conservative population and stagnant economy, we are a young, optimistic, and bristlingly restive society, on a growth path and increasingly contemptuous of the risk-averse. Optimism can teeter over into a sense of invulnerability, and caution starts to look like myopic timidity. Our time, we keep telling ourselves, is now, and we aren’t willing to hang around weighing pros and cons. Regulation, red tape, environmental review, risk evaluation: all bad words now in our lexicon, unnecessary halts to our free stride into the front ranks.

Instead, we take short cuts. As we know from cases such as Delhi’s Lalita Park building collapse last November, an unnerving number of the buildings coming up in India’s cities are unlikely to stand up on a good day, let alone survive the kind of battering that Tokyo’s skyscrapers did last week.

We currently have 22 nuclear reactors scattered across the country, and tend to assume they have been built to exacting standards, maintained with exquisite care. The plan within the current decade is to increase nuclear-generated power by five times, and by 15 times in the next 20 years. This will involve a proliferation of plants and reactors—and a consequent multiplication of risk locations. We have several thousand major dams, and a ramifying canal system. Urban India is witnessing a rapid rash of high-rise buildings; airports are being constructed, concrete infrastructure planned. New sources of risk are proliferating, even as old risks lurk.

Recently, I took a walk across the roof of Chandigarh’s Secretariat Building. At the time of its construction, in the mid-1950s, it was a marvel of modern concrete; today, as the sagging concrete roof slabs testify, the steel used was not up to standard. Was the steel used in the concrete safety walls at the atomic power plants at Tarapur or Bhabha Atomic Research Centre different? I’d like to know.

Risk analysis is an extremely complex technical field. It encompasses many domains: financial markets, epidemiology and public health, moral and ethical choices, regime stability, human longevity, aircraft and shipping insurance, building evaluations, security and terrorism. Virtually every field of human activity is today subject to some form of risk assessment.

Risk management, based often on plotting the relative likelihood of an event against its relative impact, is now a fundamental part of most national security strategies. Many governments have developed and maintain something like a National Risk Register, which serves to identify likely significant emergencies, provide data for comparatively evaluating them, and set out procedures for dealing with such events. Standardly, these have been confidential or even secret documents, but the UK has in recent years made public its National Risk Register, published by the British Cabinet Office (http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/resource-library/national-risk-register). It makes for interesting reading in current circumstances.  

Our Constitution spells out a wide range of juridical Emergency powers. But we also need to know about the real capacities that authorities have to deal with emergencies. More importantly, much greater transparency is needed: not just with regard to safeguards standards for high-risk infrastructure and the effective enforcement of those standards, but also to make comprehensible to the public exactly the sorts of risk calculations that are being taken on their behalf by experts and by political leaders.

Dealing with risk may seem like a matter of technical competence, but it’s a cultural matter as well, involving ethical probity. We rely more and more on professional expertise and technical competence to secure us against risk. Yet we live in a society where diplomas and degrees are freely bought and traded, where individual competence and public regulations each have their market price, and where what happens under the table is often more important than what is supposed to happen under the law. Is the pilot really a pilot? Is the doctor qualified? What about the structural or nuclear engineer? There’s a point at which trust ceases to be rational, becomes credulity.

The development and inculcation of professional ethics is a slow process: a form of cultural transmission, whereby practitioners come to see their work as a vocation as much as a job. In large part, sustaining such professional ethics requires the presence in the society as a whole of a more general degree of civic morality—which can sustain trust.  

In the end, judgements about societal risk can never be reduced simply to expert calculations. They require complicated holistic judgements—which probe connections between apparently unconnected issues, identify trade-offs, and which invariably also involve counterfactual reasoning (if we did not take this particular risk, what other types of risk might we face?).

There will be much debate in coming weeks across the world, and I hope in India too, about readiness in the face of natural emergencies, and about the wisdom of certain scientific choices and investments. We shall have to hear from plenty of wild-haired professional Cassandras, as well as from regiments of Panglossian expert-boosters. The sandwich boards will be out on the media streets. Certainties will be voiced with great energy, about matters of deep uncertainty.

It will be hard to sift the ideological and wishful from the factual and logical. But we’ll need to do so, and need above all to exercise judgement: weighing the trade-offs involved in choices that may yield low-probability but very high-impact events.

Much of the debate will focus on the more spectacular cases: nuclear power plants, for sure. I worry about those multiplying fuel cores, as anyone rational must do. But my deeper worry is about our culture of impatience, of casual disregard of the caution embodied in due process. For that is implanting a different kind of risk nexus in our society. The real estate developer who comes into a quiet village, bribes his way towards permissions to build a hotel in a residential area, and has no questions to answer about how his plans will affect the environment, water supply, lives and livelihoods of the villagers: It’s that silent, insidious jacking-up of the risk distributions across our society, all in the name of an abstracted growth, that I worry about too.

Sunil Khilnani is director-designate of the India Institute, King’s College, London, and author of The Idea of India. He is currently working on a new book, India in Search of Wealth and Power. Write to him at publiceye@livemint.com