The proposed site of the INO (left) and the entrance to the IMSc in Chennai. Photos: INO collaboration and IMSc
Bengaluru: The fortunes of a big science experiment that incumbent Tamil Nadu chief minister M.K. Stalin opposed during his time as opposition leader may be in for a reversal, as he has now appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to shut it.
On their part, scientists have appealed to Stalin to approve and support the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) instead.
The proposed observatory is to be built inside a mountain hollowed out for the purpose. It will have a 1.9-km-long horizontal tunnel leading to the underground cavern, which will house the laboratory and a giant neutrino detector. This is a 51-kilotonne magnetised machine called an iron calorimeter.
The bulk of the Rs 1,500 crore sanctioned for the project will come from the Department of Atomic Energy, which is overseen by the prime minister. The mountain of interest is located near Pottipuram in Theni district, Tamil Nadu.
Neutrinos are elementary particles with low mass and neutral charge. They interact very weakly with matter, so billions of neutrinos can pass through a solid object, as if it were transparent. The universe’s major source of neutrinos is the nuclear fusion reactions inside stars. Other sources include supernovae, natural radioactivity and cosmic rays interacting with atoms in Earth’s upper atmosphere.
India has a rich history of neutrino research. Scientists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, Durham University in the UK and Osaka City University in Japan were the first to report the existence of atmospheric neutrinos in 1965. They used an underground neutrino detector at the Kolar Gold Fields, Karnataka. But the underground observatory had to be closed in 1992, when the mines closed as well.
Several discussions about opening a new neutrino observatory followed, propelled by the consensus that India’s wealth of theoretical physicists and students could benefit greatly from an experiment. The INO took shape at a meeting at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc) in Chennai in 2000.
In 2005, scientists identified a site for the INO in Singara in Tamil Nadu. However, Jairam Ramesh, the then environment minister, rejected the site because of “very weighty reasons” articulated in a report on the effect of the project on the area’s wildlife and ecology.
The Geological Survey of India subsequently suggested the current site, near Pottipuram village in the Bodi West hills, considering the project’s requirements and rock stability.
However, locals, environmentalists, politicians and NGOs have raised concerns about the project even at this site.
In fact, irrespective of the pertinence of either group’s claims, the fact remains that the INO waters have been churning continuously, and there has rarely been a time when the project hasn’t been controversial. With Stalin’s new plea to have the project closed, it would now appear that shuttering the project has also become politically expeditious.
In January 2015, Vaiko, the leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) party in Tamil Nadu, agitated against the project, saying it would “bring unimaginable and terrible disaster to the mankind (sic) and the environment,” as Nithyanand Rao and Virat Markandeya reported for The Wire Science.
Vaiko also argued, falsely, that ‘radiation’ from the project would affect the people. A month later, he petitioned the Madras high court saying the project site was within 50 km of the Idukki and Mullaperiyar dams, among others. In 2013, a commentator named V.T. Padmanaban also raised dubitable concerns about the impact of tunnelling on local aquifers (an underground layer of rock containing water).
In 2017, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) directed the INO collaboration to get a new environmental clearance and the approval of the National Board for Wildlife as the site was close to the Mathikettan Shola National Park. The project received environmental clearance the following year.
T.R. Govindarajan, an emeritus professor of physics at IMSc, said that the last two years have been quiet due to the pandemic and the associated lockdowns – even though the NGT had approved the project proposal and directed the National Board for Wildlife and the Pollution Control Board to approve the project.
More recently, there have also been concerns about the INO and the proposed Pottipuram Research Centre at the site obstructing the Mathikettan-Periyar tiger corridor.
But in a recent press release, dated June 25, 2021, Gobinda Majumder, the project director of Pottipuram Research Centre, said “It is to be noted that the surface facilities are purely restricted to the 26.825 ha of revenue land and lie completely outside the adjoining Reserve Forest; hence there will be no disturbance to the reserve forest or tiger corridor from surface facilities.”
Before he became Tamil Nadu chief minister earlier this year, Stalin had opposed the project as the opposition leader. And today, Vaiko’s MDMK is an ally of Stalin’s Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. So, members of the INO collaboration said, Stalin’s request to Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t surprise them.
However, the scientists were also hoping that Stalin would have changed his mind after evaluating “the true impact of the project for the scientific and technological development of the state of Tamil Nadu,” Naba K. Mondal, a professor of physics at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics and the project spokesperson, told The Wire Science.
Scientists of the collaboration have not been able to meet Stalin to explain themselves, Mondal continued, but expressed confidence that the chief minister would change his mind.
In a recent appeal, 78 scientists canvassed Stalin’s support for the INO project. The list of signatories included Arthur B. McDonald and Takaaki Kajita, who shared the Nobel Prize for physics in 2015, for their contributions to neutrino physics. Some of the other signatories are physicists Abhay Ashtekar, Sunil Mukhi, Ganapathy Baskaran, Sunethra Ramanan and Bala Iyer, and science communicators T.V. Venkateswaran and R. Ramachandran.
Nityanand Jayaraman, a Chennai-based social activist, sees this as a debate of values. While those supporting the project are doing so because of their values and perceived importance of their scientific research, those opposing the project are doing so because of their values and perceived importance of more mundane things – grazing, wildlife, water, etc,” he said. “We have to be sensitive to what the people want.”
Govindarajan and Mondal also agreed. “People are more concerned about how this will help in their day-to-day problems – will it give them jobs or new infrastructure like health, education, etc.,” Govindarajan said.
“For example, the local people were concerned about the diversion of the water they used for irrigation for the project,” Mondal added. In response, according to him, the collaboration had arranged with the Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board for the planned INO facility to receive water directly from the Mullaperiyar river 15 km away, through a dedicated pipeline.
However, Jayaraman argued that the daily usage of about 400,000 litres of water at the INO would be an added stress on an already water-stressed region. “That’s enough water for 400 people.” He added that one must take utmost care about the purposes for which water from the Mullaperiyar river is used, as it is already a bone of contention between Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Mondal also said that the team had addressed the locals’ other apprehensions. “We also took up the development and extension of the local road in that area approaching our site, as locals were worried that our construction vehicles would damage their road,” he said.
But, Mondal continued, the environmental and political activists opposing the project have often advanced inconsistent arguments and shifted the narratives over the years, such that it has become difficult to keep countering them.
“They started their protests first by projecting INO as a secret American project to make a ‘neutrino bomb’, then they moved on to the environmental effects of setting up an underground laboratory, and destroying aquifers,” Mondal said. “After the NGT cleared the project, they are now focusing on the tiger corridor – while our experiment will be underground.”
The INO website also lists the collaboration’s responses to some of these arguments. One question that environmentalists have asked is that of land use and rock disposal. In its response, INO said 90-95% of the rock debris would be in the form of huge chunks to be disposed off with the state government’s help, while repurposing the smaller pieces for use in construction.
But Jayaraman asked how exactly this vast amount of rock would be disposed of without affecting the environment, and about the effects of the construction activity and the movement of heavy vehicles and equipment on human and animal movement in the area.
The scientists also said that they have been trying to reach out to locals and organise awareness programmes since the beginning of the project. But Govindarajan said these efforts have slackened somewhat of late, which has allowed suspicion of the INO and its attendant activities to rise. “I hope there will be renewed efforts,” he finished.
Joel P. Joseph is a science writer.