Underground lab to detect spooky particles gets NGT nod

The Rs 1,500-crore India-based Neutrino Observatory was approved by the Union Cabinet in January 2015 after several hurdles

An Indian underground physics laboratory to detect the universe’s most elusive sub-atomic particle has received the National Green Tribunal’s approval, resurrecting the hope for its realisation.

The Rs 1,500-crore India-based Neutrino Observatory was approved by the Union Cabinet in January 2015 after several hurdles, but caught in legal tangles when a non-governmental organisation approached the southern bench of the NGT and received a favourable ruling against the proposed laboratory.

Following an adverse ruling last year, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, the lead agency for the INO project, asked for a fresh environmental clearance and received it from the Union Environment Ministry in March.

The NGO appealed against the approval in the principal bench of the NGT.

The green bench on Friday upheld the environmental clearance but ruled that an approval from the National Board of Wildlife would also be required because of the site’s proximity to Mathikettan Shola National Park in Idukki district of Kerala.

“We maintain that we always abide by all due processes of the law and will continue to do so. Only after obtaining the environmental, forest and wildlife clearances (the first two are already obtained) can we approach the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board for final consent; the project will be implemented only after this due process,” INO project director Vivek Datar, a professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, said in a statement.

The INO will help scientists study neutrinos that are elementary particles with no charge and almost no mass, as result of which they don’t affect anything they pass through. They are the universe’s most abundant particles, but incredibly difficult to detect.

The ambitious project was conceptualised in 2000 by Indian physicists, some of whom had conducted cosmic ray experiments in Kolar gold mine that was shut down by the government due to financial non-viability.

After five years of discussions within the scientific community, the TIFR submitted a formal proposal to set up the INO to detect the spooky particles, to the Department of Atomic Energy in 2006.

The project, subsequently, experienced multiple obstacles regarding the first-choice site, political opposition and green activism. In 2015, the NGO opposed construction of the project at the alternate site at Bodi West Hills, Pottipuram village, Theni district.

Disposing of the petition, the principal bench of the NGT ruled in favour of the big-science project.

“It was correct on the part of the Expert Appraisal Committee and the MoEF to appraise the project at their level. Moreover, it is not the case that EAC or the MoEF could not have appraised the projects at their level under any circumstances or that EAC has no competency to appraise the projects of this nature,” the NGT ruled.

The ruling negated the argument of the petitioner G Sunderrajan, who challenged the green clearance given by the EAC in March 2018 claiming several procedural violations.

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Underground lab to detect spooky particles gets NGT nod

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