The theories on public engagement in scientific and regulatory decision-making have changed rapidly during the last two decades. The regulatory decision making processes, which were completely in the domain of expert’s knowledge, have come under severe attack from social scientists, politicians, journalists, and public intellectuals. Questions over ‘participatory gap’ have been raised by severalscholars. This framework follows the pluralist precautionary approach and argues for giving considerable weight and space to non-scientist and other actors in regulatory decision-makings. The debates over public engagement become more intense in the context of genetically modified foods, stem cell research, reproductive cloning, climate change and other contentious issues. In this regard, government policies and participatory mechanisms vary across countries.

Scholars, engaged in quantitative studies on regulatory decision-making processes have propounded the ‘deficit theory’ which accounts that people do not have enough and proper understanding of technical and scientific issues. This view has been criticised by scholars in later studies. The alternative views propound that people do have the capacity to grasp the implications of many scientific and regulatory decision-making on their day-to-day life. Non-scientists and laypersons decisions become more crucial, on the issues, where the experts themselves were not very certain about the risk generated from scientific and technical problems. Thus, the incorporation of decisions of other actors makes the process pluralistic, transparent, and democratic in nature, and leads to greater acceptance of regulatory decisions in democratic societies.

In this background, this paper explores the regulatory decision making process for setting quality standards of bottled water in India. The paper also attempts to explore the public understanding of regulatory decision-making and their opinion over expert’s committee composition. Through primary survey, the study explores three basic premises: the awareness of people towards regulatory bodies and its implications over their decision-making, their willingness to participate in decision-making process and their perception of the composition of the expert committee.

In the study it was found, that majority of the respondents were aware about the regulatory body. Apparently, the scientific and technical parameters used by BIS for setting quality standards do not connotes much meaning to them, and perhaps, they trust other parameters to judge drinking water quality. Here, it was also found that people were highly willing to participate in the decision making process of standards setting. The individuals in the least educated category were more willing to participate in the standard setting exercise. Where as, people belonging to the highest category of education want to leave it to the ‘experts’. This suggests that people perception over scientific authority and validity varies across different sections of society. Over the issue of composition of expert committee for setting standards for bottled water, it was found that people posed more faith in government and consumer organisations. Only thirteen per cent of the respondents felt that there is a need to have representatives of industry groups in the expert committee. This is in sharp contrast with the present composition of these regulatory bodies where around forty percent experts are industry representatives.

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

People’ s perception of public participation in regulatory decision making
The case of bottled water quality standards in India

Aviram Sharma   Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University

The theories on public engagement in scientific and regulatory decision-making have changed rapidly during the last two decades. The regulatory decision making processes, which were completely in the domain of expert’s knowledge, have come under severe attack from social scientists, politicians, journalists, and public intellectuals. Questions over ‘participatory gap’ have been raised by severalscholars. This framework follows the pluralist precautionary approach and argues for giving considerable weight and space to non-scientist and other actors in regulatory decision-makings. The debates over public engagement become more intense in the context of genetically modified foods, stem cell research, reproductive cloning, climate change and other contentious issues. In this regard, government policies and participatory mechanisms vary across countries.

Scholars, engaged in quantitative studies on regulatory decision-making processes have propounded the ‘deficit theory’ which accounts that people do not have enough and proper understanding of technical and scientific issues. This view has been criticised by scholars in later studies. The alternative views propound that people do have the capacity to grasp the implications of many scientific and regulatory decision-making on their day-to-day life. Non-scientists and laypersons decisions become more crucial, on the issues, where the experts themselves were not very certain about the risk generated from scientific and technical problems. Thus, the incorporation of decisions of other actors makes the process pluralistic, transparent, and democratic in nature, and leads to greater acceptance of regulatory decisions in democratic societies.

In this background, this paper explores the regulatory decision making process for setting quality standards of bottled water in India. The paper also attempts to explore the public understanding of regulatory decision-making and their opinion over expert’s committee composition. Through primary survey, the study explores three basic premises: the awareness of people towards regulatory bodies and its implications over their decision-making, their willingness to participate in decision-making process and their perception of the composition of the expert committee.

In the study it was found, that majority of the respondents were aware about the regulatory body. Apparently, the scientific and technical parameters used by BIS for setting quality standards do not connotes much meaning to them, and perhaps, they trust other parameters to judge drinking water quality. Here, it was also found that people were highly willing to participate in the decision making process of standards setting. The individuals in the least educated category were more willing to participate in the standard setting exercise. Where as, people belonging to the highest category of education want to leave it to the ‘experts’. This suggests that people perception over scientific authority and validity varies across different sections of society. Over the issue of composition of expert committee for setting standards for bottled water, it was found that people posed more faith in government and consumer organisations. Only thirteen per cent of the respondents felt that there is a need to have representatives of industry groups in the expert committee. This is in sharp contrast with the present composition of these regulatory bodies where around forty percent experts are industry representatives.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

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