After 10 years, underground neutrino lab remains on paper

In the early 1990s when the government closed down the Kolar gold mine due to financial non-viability, a group of young physicists was disappointed. They were studying the cosmic rays in the underground laboratory and the results created ripples internationally. Notwithstanding the unhappiness, they accepted the reality and continued their work.

Three decades down the line, several of those scientists — now at the fag end of their career — are once again feeling dejected with the March 20 decision of the southern bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that asked the scientists to keep the India-based Neutrino Observatory’s “environmental clearance” in abeyance because of the proposed site’s (at Theni district of Tamil Nadu) proximity to Mathikettan Shola National Park in  Idukki district of Kerala. The tribunal’s decision came as a death blow for the Rs 1,500 crore INO project that experienced several hurdles in the last 10 years.

Even assuming that the government found out a way to salvage the project, the key question is will the scientific goals — envisaged in 2002 — still be relevant? China is already constructing a similar detector to address the same set of scientific queries — known as neutrino mass hierarchy problem — using a different method. And the first result from China is expected by around 2020.

“The morale of the scientists is extremely low at the moment. We are on the losing ground. How can I ask a student to join this research?” lamented Naba Mandal, a former professor of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, who was the mission director for the INO project till his retirement from the TIFR — the lead agency for the project.

In August 2000, during a meeting on neutrino physics at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, a small group of researchers first discussed the possibility of building a neutrino detector. In a subsequent meeting at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, in February 2001, the INO collaboration was created and the first formal meeting was held at TIFR in September 2001. Sub-groups were formed to study the detector options and electronics, simulation studies and site survey. In 2006, a formal proposal was submitted to the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE).

The DAE in turn sought opinion from the Scientific Advisory Committee to the Prime Minister (SAC-PM), headed by C N R Rao. The SAC-PM concurred and the project took off. The site selection team came up with three suggestions: Rammam in Darjeeling district of West Bengal, Singara in Nilgiri district of Tamil Nadu and the Rohtang tunnel in Himachal Pradesh. The Tamil Nadu site was the first preference because of the low seismicity and stability of the Deccan rocks. In addition, since underground tunnelling was going on for a hydro-power project, the scientists thought it would be easier to extend the sub-surface tunnel to set up the laboratory.

That was the time, when the researchers experienced the first jolt. It came from then environment minister Jairam Ramesh, who did not approve the INO project even after admitting that he was “sympathetic to the project because of its scientific significance” and commended the DAE for the level of “detail and the sensitivity demonstrated to environmental issues” in the environmental management plan and the environment impact assessment of the proposed observatory.

In a letter to then DAE secretary Anil Kakodkar, Ramesh wrote that scientists were as mindful of the environment issues as the NGOs, who were against it. He also admitted to have the highest regards for the opinion of Indian Institute of Science professor R Sukumar, an internationally known conservationist, who was of the opinion that arguments against the Singara site are, to a very large extent, exaggerated and misplaced. But still, the minister opined against it as it was located in the buffer zone of a reserve forest.

Left with little option, the researchers moved to an alternate site at the Theni district of Tamil Nadu. The location was identified in consultation with the Forest Department of Tamil Nadu. The necessary approvals from the environment ministry came in 2011. A fresh project report was submitted to the DAE and the Department of Science and Technology. Once again, the approval was taken from the Atomic Energy Commission.

Protest by Vaiko
In between, the scientists met then Kerala chief minister V S Achuyatanandan to secure his support as he expressed some reservations on the project initially. On December 24, 2014, the Union cabinet cleared the Rs 1,500 crore project. As the tender documents were being readied, MDMK leader Vaiko entered the picture.

Over the next few months in 2015, the INO team faced protest from Vaiko and his supporters. There was also a public interest litigation filed in the Madurai bench of the Chennai High Court, which ruled that the project can not be initiated till it obtained a clearance certificate from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board.

The TNPCB, which was to come out with its decision within 45 days after evaluating the INO’s possible impacts on air and water pollution, has not yet come out with its order even after two years. In the absence of the TNPCB order, the ongoing road construction was stopped. Then in the later part of 2015, green activist G Sundarrajan filed a petition in the NGT opposing construction of the observatory.

According to the NGT ruling that came in March 2017, at the time of conception, the DAE went by the Environment Impact Assessment norms of 2006, which called for the highest ecological standard if a project is within 10 km of a national park. The distance was brought down to 5 km in June 2014.

Unfortunately, the site is located at a distance of 4.9 km from Mathikettan Shola National Park. Because of the shortage of 100 m, not only the previous environmental clearance becomes invalid, the INO project now also needed approval from the National Board for Wildlife as well.

Though the scientists are writing a White Paper on the project for a departmental review, the road ahead is unclear. “Is this the way to do science in India?” wonders Mandal.

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