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Team Behind Planned Neutrino Observatory Disputes Recent Media Reports on Ministry Clearance

Team Behind Planned Neutrino Observatory Disputes Recent Media Reports on Ministry Clearance

Recently there have been many misconceptions about the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) project in the media – particularly that the project proponents are “bending the rules” to obtain environmental clearance (EC) for the project. This is far from the truth. This note attempts to clarify the issue. (Note: This note was sent to The Wire in response to this article, published March 21, 2018.)

The proposed project is a basic sciences laboratory, to be constructed underground. This will permit experiments to be performed with low background radioactivity since Earth acts as a sieve, filtering out cosmic radiation. The proposed construction area is about 30,000 sq. m, with about 20,000 sq. m being built underground. Once the construction period – four to five years – is complete, the lab will function just like any other science lab in the world, and will have no toxic or radioactive emissions. Such a project requires an EC according to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Act, 2006, and its many amendments.

The EC that was obtained by the INO in 2011 was held in abeyance by the National Green Tribunal in March 2017, and the INO was directed to apply for a fresh clearance, along with a clearance from the National Board for Wildlife because of project site’s proximity to the Mathikettan Shola National Park. The INO has applied for both. According to environment ministry guidelines apropos the EIA Act, INO had applied to the Tamil Nadu State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA) for clearance in June 2017. See Notes 1 and 2 for more details.

However, the application, along with the fee, was returned to the project proponents, who were then asked by the SEIAA to approach environment ministry for clearance. After several meetings and three re-applications by the INO, the SEIAA finally stated that the project should be assessed by the ministry under a suitable category.

Also read: Why India’s most sophisticated science experiment languishes between a rock and a hard place

It was after months of going back and forth between the SEIAA and ministry that the INO was asked to apply afresh with an accredited agency as required by rules. It was then that the ministry took it up for assessment. The same rules have been applied, and the only “special” consideration was that the project was assessed at the central level instead of at the state level.

In addition, it has several times been mentioned that the Salim Ali Centre, which did the EIA study for INO, is not an accredited agency. Under Category B-8a, under which INO has filed for an EC, there is no requirement for an EIA. The project proponents wanted to acquire the best possible baseline data in order to formulate the best possible environmental management plan and hence asked the institute to perform the relevant studies as an input. Hence, the issue of their being accredited or not does not arise.

Finally, contrary to what has been stated in many newspapers – including an editorial – and many claims made by persons or activists opposing the project, the presence of the Mathikettan Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park does not mandate clearance under Category A, as a reading of the EIA Act will show.

INO is a project that promotes basic science education and research. Many of the scientists who were involved earlier are now retired and many of those who are involved now may not even be there when it finally gets going. There is obviously no profit motive any because this project does not generate jobs or profit. More importantly, after experiencing legal hurdles, why would the proponents willingly walk into another round of legal battles?

In short, there is and has been no attempt to “cut any corners” or “bend the rules”. Also, once the EC is obtained, the project proponents will scrupulously abide by the terms and conditions of the clearances.


Notes and details:

1. The projects proponents have filed for EC under Category 8a, which is the category for large construction projects. Projects with a built-up area of less than 1,50,000 sq. m are treated as Category B and are to be assessed by the relevant SEIAA. Anything larger is to be treated as Category A and is also called 8b. In particular, general conditions do not apply for this category and hence the presence of, for example, any wildlife sanctuary or national park does not change the category. The project proponents are, however, required to separately file for clearance for wildlife, which the INO has done.

2. In Category 8a, the required forms are numbered 1 and 1a along with a conceptual plan. There is no requirement for a public hearing or for an EIA, both of which have been repeatedly referred to by activists opposing the project.

The various categories under which an EC can be applied for are:

  1. Mining, extraction of natural resources and power generation (for a specified production capacity)
  2. Primary processing (such as coal and minerals)
  3. Materials production
  4. Materials processing
  5. Manufacturing and fabrication,
  6. Service sectors
  7. Physical infrastructure including environmental services (including airports, ship-yards, highways, waste-treatment, etc.)
  8. Building, construction projects, area development projects and townships
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