Tamil Nadu

Neutrino project: no clearance from villagers

As dusk falls in Chinna Pottipuram village and people return home after grazing cattle, elderly women in the village assemble at the oor manthai (a gathering place) and begin prayers invoking Ambarappar, the eponymous deity of the Ambarappar Hill in Theni district, where the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) is proposed to be set up. The prayer, which has now become a daily routine in the village, continues until late in the night and ends in a fervent appeal to Ambarappar to stop the INO project. The ritual is an indication of the near unanimous opposition faced by the project in the villages of Pottipuram panchayat, closely located to the project site.

The project is back in focus, with the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change granting fresh environmental clearance (EC) last month, rekindling opposition from the local people, activists and politicians.

A visit to the area showed that the EC has only increased the locals’ hostility towards the project. “People of my generation are not going to live for long. However, we have the responsibility to protect this village so that the younger generation can sustain their lives here. We will not even allow a single vehicle to enter the village for the project,” says 73-year-old P. Muthilikamu, the headman of T. Pudukottai, the village located closest to the project site, 2 km away.

Mistrust continues to rule the minds of the villagers, with many of them continuing to be unaware of why the present site has been selected for the project — the scientific requirement of tunnelling a high-enough mountain, seismic compatibility of the area, and the near absence of forests that may need to be cleared.

Fresh in their minds

In Pottipuram panchayat, which includes T. Pudukottai, Chinna Pottipuram, T. Ramakrishnapuram, Kuppanasaripatti and Thimminaickenpatti villages, the INO project dominates nearly every discussion. About half of the over 9,000 people in the panchayat are agricultural labourers. A majority of the households has large numbers of cattle, which graze mostly in the Ambarappar hill and adjacent areas.

A stream at the base of the hill runs close to the roughly 27 hectares of poramboke land that is now fenced off for the project, and feeds at least two tanks nearby when it rains. Though an irrigation canal extended to the area in recent years runs half-a-kilometre away from the project site, villagers say that they were yet to see water in it.

The villagers see a spiritual significance to the Ambarappar hill, near the base of which is the small thatched-roof Ambarappar Swami shrine. The foremost fear of the local people seems to be the prospect that the INO will alienate them from the hill that has been an integral part of their lives. “There is no spot on the hill that I have not set foot on. Our children, including girls, go even in the evenings to the hill to graze cattle or pick firewood. All that will stop as the neutrino people will gradually take control of the area,” says Mr. Muthilikamu.

The INO team has assured them that there will be no restriction of movement outside the fenced area and paramilitary forces will not be deployed, but they are not convinced.

Despite the claims of the team that extensive outreach programmes were done around 2010 after finalising Pottipuram as the location, a number of people The Hindu met in these villages claim no one has explained the project to them, which was also evident from the bizarre fears they expressed, besides apprehensions on possible environmental impact and loss of livelihood.

For instance, P. Periyaraj of T. Pudukottai says: “They are going to keep a giant magnet [the 50 kilo tonne Iron Calorimeter detector] inside the mountain. People say that it will attract all the iron tools from our houses.”

The uploading of a comprehensive list of frequently asked questions on the INO website, both in Tamil and English, has not helped much. The public dissemination meeting organised in the 2010 was reportedly attended only by the people of T. Ramakrishnapuram, who claim it was dominated by assurances of developmental prospects for the villages instead of explanation of the project.

The project is also fiercely questioned by activists on various fronts.


Approval process

G. Sundarrajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal, the petitioner in the case in which the NGT kept the EC in abeyance, alleges that the EC granted now by the Ministry was a violation of rules and the NGT’s order. “The Tamil Nadu State Environmental Impact Assessment Agency (TNSEIAA) cites clear reasons, including the risks in the tunnelling, for why the project cannot be assessed under Category B of Section 8 (a) - ‘Buildings and Construction projects’. The NGT order also said the same. Still, the Ministry granted EC under that category,” he says.

“The EC states that ‘Considering the national importance of the proposal, Ministry decided to appraise the proposal at the Central level as a special case’. When you have law, there can be no special cases,” he adds.

The project team, however, has vehemently denied allegations of special treatment. Clarifying in a recent interview to The Hindu that the project clearly fell under Category B of Section 8 (a) as per the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification of 2006 and a subsequent clarification issued to the notification in December 2014, V.M. Datar, Project Director, INO, explains it had to be appraised by the Ministry only because the TNSEIAA did not clear it.

V. Balakrishnan, former Deputy Director General, Geological Survey of India, who was associated with the INO project during the selection of the site, says that if TN SEIAA had difficulties in assessing the tunnelling work, they could have always invited experts.

The larger concern environmental activists are raising, however, is the bypassing of a full-fledged Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and public hearing for the project. The Detailed Project Report indicates the use of 450 tonnes of explosives over four years to excavate 6 lakh tonnes of rocks in the Western Ghats for construction of tunnels and caverns. The INO still needs approvals from the National Board for Wildlife and TN Pollution Control Board.

“If the project team wants to be transparent, the first document they must bring out is a proper EIA. Let them place it before the local people in a language they understand and then let the people decide,” says Nityanand Jayaraman, environmental activist.

Taking defence in the law that the EIA and the public hearing were not needed for projects in Category B of Section 8(a), the project team, however, claim that they pro-actively did an Ecological Impact Assessment to assess risk to flora and fauna and to prepare an effective Environment Management Plan.

Neutrino project: no clearance from villagers

“We also care for the environment. In fact, a key reason for zeroing in on Pottipuram is the negligible impact to the environment.

No forest land over ground will be used. The 4.62 hectares of land from the Forest department is only for the tunnels and caverns and there will be no disturbance on the surface once construction is over. The remaining 27 hectares is revenue poramboke with thorny bushes and not a single tree had to be cut,” says D. Indumathi, Professor, Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc), and a collaborator in the project. The Ecological Impact Assessment and the DPR collectively address concerns about the impact to the environment and blasting.

Activists say this is insufficient. “When many recent studies have talked about human-induced earthquakes, particularly due to mining and reservoir-induced seismicity, a thorough study on blasting is needed,” Mr. Sundarrajan says.

Many of these studies provide no conclusive evidence on earthquakes being human-induced, says Mr. Balakrishnan. He adds that the possibility of human-induced seismicity can be safely ruled out at the proposed INO site as it fell under Seismic Zone II — the safest in India. He adds that concerns about blasting at the site causing structural damage to Idukki and Mullaperiyar dams in Kerala, which are more than 30 km away, and affecting ground water table, were unfounded.

“In all the hydroelectric projects, including those in Idukki and Mullaperiyar, the blasting done for the tunnelling work close to the dams has not even affected seepage levels, let alone caused structural damage,” he says, adding that the technology of controlled blasting has improved significantly.

On concerns about the 3.4 lakh litre water consumption a day during the operational phase, which will be brought through a 20 km pipeline from infiltration wells in Mullaperiyar river, T.V. Venkateswaran, Scientist F, Vigyan Prasar , says that though the usage is considerable, it is not significant enough to affect drinking water and irrigation needs served by the river as alleged by the critics.

A rough calculation shows that the daily requirement for INO will be 0.015 % of the daily drinking water requirement of 227 million litre for Madurai city. In other words, it will take around 18 years for INO to consume one day’s need of Madurai city.

While critics have alleged that the actual requirement will be significantly larger than what is projected, Dr. Indumathi said that the actual usage might be lesser.

Internet research

M. Maran (54), a farmer from Thevaram, ten kilometre away from Pottipuram, said that he began disillusioned with the INO project after originally being curious about the prospect of a science project being set up near his place.

Mr. Maran’s computer has numerous folders containing articles and documents taken from the Internet about INO and other neutrino-related researches across the world. His reading has led him to the conclusion that INO is a small cog in the neutrino research ‘controlled’ by the US.

He blamed the INO team for being intentionally ambiguous about collaborations with Fermilab in the US. He cites articles about the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment (LBNE), which intended to study neutrino beams sent from Fermilab through the earth to many detectors including INO, and the possibility of setting up a detector for ‘dark matter.’

“I am not saying these collaborations are bad. But, why are the scientists hesitant to talk, which is leading us to be suspicious,” he said.

The scientists, however, said that nothing could be farther from truth. Acknowledging that LBNE was initially considered for the second stage of experiments in INO, which will take at least ten years after INO becomes operational, Mr. Datar said that it is not being talked now since it became irrelevant with the identification of a parameter related to neutrino called ‘mixing angle’ in 2012.

As for setting up more experiments, Dr. Indumathi says the financial sanction has now been been granted only for three components — the construction of the tunnels, cavern and other facilities at Pottipuram, setting up the ICAL detector, and for constructing the Inter Institutional Centre for High Energy Physics at Madurai.

Reiterating that no beam-based experiments were under consideration for INO now, the scientists add that the scare about radiation due to ‘artificial neutrinos’ from ‘neutrino factories’ is baseless as neutrinos from artificial sources are no different from neutrinos from natural sources.

With neutrino factories, based on muon colliders, that can produce highly collimated neutrino beams with energy levels in 10s of Giga-electron-volt remaining only in conceptual stage across the world, Ms. Indumathi said a rough calculation, as discussed in science papers, would show that a person has to stand for 10 crore years in front of such a beam to get the same radiation dose as one would get from natural background radioactivity in a year.

On critics pointing to the possibility of neutrino beams being used to detect and destroy nuclear bombs, Mr. Datar said it was only a theoretical concept. Citing a paper by H Sugawara, H Hagura and T. Sanami published in 2003 that proposed this idea, he said that the paper’s authors themselves had said that it was a futuristic concept that has to meet certain ‘ridiculous’ requirements with the power needed more than the requirement of entire Great Britain and would take at least a century to develop even a simple prototype of the proposal.

Other neutrino detectors around the world
  • ANTARES -Under Mediterranean sea off coast of Toulon, France. (Underwater neutrino telescope)
  • IceCube – Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, Antarctica, (Under-ice detector)
  • Borexino - Gran Sasso, Italy. (Underground experiment)
  • Sudbury Neutrino Observatory - Sudbury, Ontario, Canada (Underground experiment)
  • Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Experiment- In Daya Bay near Hong Kong, China
  • Super-Kamiokande, under Mount Ikeno, Japan

What’s the benefit?

Some of the opposition also stems from the argument on the need for a ₹1,300 crore project vis-a-vis unmet local needs. “Labs in our schools are ill-equipped. There are several daily problems, including cleaning of septic tanks and waste management, for which we need scientific solutions. That should be our priority,” says A. Sathyamanickam, who runs Galileo Science Centre in Madurai.

“We have been demanding a small stretch of road through forest land at Sakkaluthu, to help those going to Kerala for work reduce travel time by two hours. Similarly, we have been demanding proper drinking water schemes. These will benefit us. What benefit will INO bring us?” asks J. Jakkama Naicker from Chinna Pottipuram.

Mr. Venkateswaran disagrees. Stressing that while identifying solutions to daily problems and meeting the basic needs of people were important, he said funding such initiatives need not be at the cost of basic science research such as the INO. “Also, the yardstick of direct and immediate benefits cannot be used to gauge basic science research,” he added.

He said that the benefits of a fully indigenously built experiment like the INO will help in capacity building, both on the technology and the human resources front.

Stephen Inbanathan, Head, Department of Applied Science, The American College, and a collaborator in the INO project, pointed to the Graduates Training Programme launched by the INO that has taken students for Ph.D that can provide opportunities for students from the region.

S. Pethuraj, from Keela Annamalaipuram village in Thoothukudi district, is one such student who got into the programme by clearing the entrance examination after finishing post-graduation in Madurai Kamaraj University.

“I did my schooling in government schools near my village and under-graduation in Tiruchi. Have never heard of neutrinos or the INO project until I chanced upon a lecture by IMSc Professors at MKU as part of INO collaboration meeting. That got me hooked,” he said, adding that he never imagined to get the opportunity to work in cutting-edge laboratories in institutions like Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the key collaborating institution for INO.

Stating that the INO team was even willing to give it in writing that the rights of the local people to the land outside the fenced area will not be taken away, Dr. Indumathi says, “If the situation gets so vitiated that deployment of paramilitary forces becomes necessary to ensure the safety of those working in the observatory, we would rather prefer not to pursue research.”

Fears and facts

Typical fear no. 1:

Radiaoactivity: “Radioactive leak shuts down neutrino study, Scientific American, June 5 2014. This led people to suppose (a) neutrinos can give radiation leaks; (b) Radioactive waste is buried near neutrino facilities.

Fact: The radiation leak was not from the neutrino detector EXO-200, but from a radioactive leak from an underground nuclear waste repository. Currently the experiment is back to operation. Radiation of that kind will drown out and destroy the weak neutrino signal. This only goes to show that underground nuclear waste repository cannot be build anywhere near a neutrino observatory.

Typical fear no. 2:

Natural or manmade: Natural neutrinos are harmless, everyone knows millions of neutrinos pass through us every moment. But artificially produced “collimated” beams of neutrinos generate radiation and can cause diseases.

Fact: Collimated simply means the beams of neutrinos travel in parallel lines. And all that is called radiation, in scientific usage, is not harmful. Even visible light is a form of radiation.

Typical fear no. 3:

Cerenkov Radiation: Some neutrino experiments detect them using the Cerenkov radiation they emit when passing through ice, water or even air. Cerenkov radiation is given off only by radioactive substances.

Fact: Cerenkov radiation, is not ‘radiation’ from nuclear power plants or X ray machines. It is just a tiny spark of electromagnetic radiation, given off by high energy charged particles such as electrons when they pass through water or other liquid. These have nothing to do with radioactive substances. Neutrinos cannot give Cerenkov radiation since they are not charged.

Typical fear no. 4:

Magnet failure: The INO experiment houses the world’s largest magnet which will attract neutrinos. During a power failure, the neutrinos will be emitted out and can cause diseases.

Fact: INO will have the world's largest electromagnet, that is, when the power is switched off, it is no longer a magnet. In addition, unlike most other magnets, the magnetic field is confined inside the magnet. There is hardly any magnetic field OUTSIDE the magnet. You can walk about with a metal watch or any other metal piece just outside and there will be no danger. This is in contrast to magnets in MRIs and such machines which may have permanent magnets inside. Further neutrinos are neutral particles which cannot be attracted by the magnets.

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Printable version | Sep 12, 2021 6:25:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/neutrino-project-no-clearance-from-villagers/article23544221.ece

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