February 21, 2022
Good morning. In today’s either/view, we look at whether a neutrino observatory should be built in India or not. We also look at why Delhi needs money to deal with legacy waste, among other news.
📰 FEATURE STORY
Indian Neutrino Observatory: A scientific yay or environmental nay?
Despite being an intelligent species, we humans don’t really know a lot about most things. Dark matter, the meaning of life and why crocodiles put sticks on their heads are all things we’re still trying to understand. Neutrinos, also incredibly known as “ghost particles”, are one such phenomenon that we both know enough to describe yet don’t really know anything about at all. And India, since 2005, has been trying to study these elusive subatomic particles.
The proposed Indian Neutrino Observatory (INO) has remained just that, a proposal, for well over a decade now. Why? Because officials can’t really agree on where to build it. Scientists say they’ve found the perfect little spot underground in the hill slopes of the Western Ghats. But the Tamil Nadu government is sure that this will affect a significant tiger corridor, and one must always save the tigers.
Are these ghost particles simply going to remain ghostly apparitions in our understanding of the universe, or is all of this just a big misunderstanding? Well, the scientists definitely believe so.
Before we get into the specifics, let’s look into what a neutrino is. Neutrinos are fundamental particles created in the first second of the early universe. They’re small, have no charge and are the most abundant particle in the universe. And because they don’t interact with anything, neutrinos become very hard to detect.
The little that we do know about neutrinos comes from observing them in faraway galaxies and stars. Considering they’re naturally produced in the high-energy processes of supernovas and alien stars, to create them in a controlled environment requires particle accelerators and nuclear plants. As of now, there are only about 20 projects set up worldwide to detect these ghost particles.
The INO has been a passion project of the National Neutrino Collaboration group (NNCG), consisting of more than 50 scientists from 15 institutes across the country, since 2000. Headed by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and the Indian Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IIMSc), it was supposed to be built by 2015. But the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests suggested that its location be moved from the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu to Theni.
Appropriate changes were made, and the ₹1,500 crore project was greenlit in the Bodi West Hills of Tamil Nadu. The problem is that 31.45 hectares of it fell right in the middle of the Mathikettan-Periyar tiger corridor. According to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), this particular corridor just so happens to be one of the more important ones.
Still, after years of pitching and pestering, the project managed to get a no-objection certificate from the NTCA. But the objection, this time, came from the Tamil Nadu government itself. On Thursday, they even filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court clearly disallowing the INO due to its possible environmental impacts. Something the scientists believe is simply based on myths and musings.
Sleeping on a golden opportunity
As of now, India’s got a comfortable edge over other nations when it comes to scientific discovery. Our sheer number of theoretical physicists and students is enough to pave the way for the future of particle physics. But, according to the former director of TIFR Sandip Trivedi, “After a year, other competitors will be ahead of us, and there is no second prize for discovery”. Unfortunately for India, he said this in 2020, and our INO is currently as good as dead.
Yet, all hope is not lost for the scientific fraternity in India. In the same breath, Trivedi brought up TIFR’s unique neutrino detector technology that still manages to keep us in a favourable position. But a lack of governmental backing does nothing for such centralised projects like the INO. While wildlife conservation is a worthy cause to fight for, one has to look into the data that supports the claims of environmentalists.
First of all, it should be noted that all the claims about high amounts of radiation coming from these projects have been debunked several times. Rajya Sabha member Vaiko, or Vaiyapuri Gopalsamy, even brought this “concern” to the courts. A concern totally based on nothing as neutrinos are naturally and abundantly available in our atmosphere. Given their size and lack of charge, they don’t react with anything and thus, often go unnoticed. They cause absolutely no harm whatsoever.
And as for the INO’s geographical location, even the NTCA eventually agreed to allow construction in the tiger corridor. How? Well, because it doesn’t really bother the landscape at all. The whole project takes place underground, in a 1,200m deep cave, to isolate the detectors from any background radiation. The tunnel entrance to this cave will be built on revenue land, and all of this tiger corridor is in forest land. None of the forest lands gets affected by the INO at all.
The INO has a complicated history with environmental clearances as they’ve gained and lost it many times. In 2018, even the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) recommended that the project be given the go-ahead. But here we are, rejected by the Tamil Nadu government over concerns that have been addressed and re-addressed by India’s brightest several times.
More than just a corridor issue
The opposition towards the INO doesn’t just come from Tamil Nadu. Given that it stretches across Kerala and Tamil Nadu, former Kerala CM V S Achuthanandan said that it would “spell doom” for both the Periyar reserve and the Mathikettan Shola National Park. Of course, this is all besides the general damage that will be done to the Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot.
According to Tamil Nadu’s additional chief secretary for environment, climate change and forests, Supriya Sahu, the tunnels will need 600,000 cubic metres of Charnockite rocks to be excavated. This will involve a serious quantity of powerful explosives. Most of the construction would take place in the Mathikettan-Periyar corridor that is used by tigers and elephants for seasonal migration. And the thing with nature is that it’s sensitive to tremors, however tiny those tremors may be.
As pointed out in the affidavit filed by the state, “By their biological behaviour, tigers would completely avoid human presence and any other anthropogenic disturbances and move through undisturbed patches of forest. Even a little vibration in the land can bring enough disturbance to its movement pattern.” Just the vehicles and manpower needed for construction is sure to have quite the impact on the ecology of the area.
Another point brought up in the affidavit is the safety concerns attached to such a plan. The idea of the whole project is that a hill will practically be hollowed out to make space for the project. This cavern, as mentioned before, will be at a depth of 1,200m. This basically puts the mountain rocks under extreme pressure. The vertical stress put on those rocks is expected to be more than 270 kg per sq m. This creates an increased threat of roof collapse or rock bursts.
Sahu also mentioned how the proposed INO site went over catchment areas of several streamlets. These streamlets eventually lead to a watershed that the people of 5 districts in Tamil Nadu depend on. Any changes to that will not only affect the population but also the various endemic species of flora and fauna in the Western Ghats. Clearly, this is too much of a risk to take up when environmental upkeep is becoming more existentially necessary as the days go by.
What’s your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)
a) Not building the Indian Neutrino Observatory is a complete waste of potential.
b) Not building the Indian Neutrino Observatory is necessary for the environment.
🕵️ BEYOND ECHO CHAMBERS
For the Right:
Hindutva and the Question of Who Owns India
For the Left:
India Returns To The Free Trade Agreement Regime: A Global Embrace But On Our Terms
🏴 STATE OF THE STATES
Dealing with legacy waste (Delhi) – The Delhi government wants ₹1,755 crores from the Centre to process the legacy waste at its three landfills. A plan was approved in a meeting of the urban development department and the commissioners of the three municipal bodies. The money will be used to engage trammel and bioremediation machines and manpower and logistics to dispose of the waste. The money allocated will be a part of the second phase of the Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban), launched last October.
Why it matters: Delhi generates about 11,400 metric tonnes (MT) of garbage every day. Out of this, 6,200 MT are dumped in landfills. The largest of the three landfills is in Ghazipur, which reached capacity in 2002. Last October, the East Delhi Municipal Corporation passed a proposal to implement bio-mining of 50 lakh tonnes of legacy waste at the Ghazipur landfill. In 2019, the Bhalswa, Okhla, and Ghazipur landfills had accumulated approximately 280 lakh tonnes of legacy waste.
No to nuclear fuel storage (Tamil Nadu) – The state government has opposed a proposal from the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited to store spent nuclear fuel at the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KNPP). The government said it should be sent back to Russia or be stored in an uninhabited area per an earlier agreement. Chief Minister KM Stalin raised the issue with Narendra Modi in a letter. He said various political parties have concerns about the potential danger of the proposal, citing accidents that affect the environment.
Why it matters: The power project includes six nuclear power reactors. Out of this, units 1 and 2 have been commissioned, 3 and 4 are under construction and the remaining haven’t been established yet. Stalin said the NCIL wants to construct Away from Reactor (AFR) facilities at the plant site for storage. He said the decision was made without the state government’s consultation. The KNPP is the largest nuclear power station in India. Since construction began in 2002, it has faced several delays due to many protests over the years.
Trinamool’s top panel meeting (West Bengal) – The top panel of the TMC had a meeting chaired by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in the wake of her dissolving all party posts on February 12. At the meeting, Abhishek Banerjee was made the party’s national general secretary. Also, Kolkata mayor and minister Firhad Hakim was made the national working committee coordinator. At the meeting, Banerjee said the TMC should be a party of the poor. She stressed that the party must remain united as it gets bigger.
Why it matters: After the dissolution of all party posts, a 20-member national working committee with Mamata Banerjee as its head was set up. Among those not included in the working committee is Derek O’Brien. The move came in the wake of reports of internal rifts within the party. The party’s younger leaders have been vocal about ‘one person one post’, which drew criticism from the old guard.
Sand mining notice (Goa) – The National Green Tribunal (NGT) is unhappy with the Goa State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (Goa-SEIAA) for its failure to respond on an appeal challenging a green clearance granted for sand mining. The clearance from the government was challenged by the Goa River Sand Protectors’ Network (GRSPN) for allowing sand mining in four river stretches. The NGT said they will next hear the case on March 2. The Goa-SEIAA approved the projects last October.
Why it matters: The GRSPN said the government gave clearances for the mining projects without the necessary district survey report being prepared and no replenishment study conducted. It said they violated an order from the apex court. Sand mining is a major source of livelihood for the people of Goa. However, per a 2011 notification, sand mining is prohibited in Coastal Regulation Zones (CRZ). A report from the Herald gave the state some room to work with. The state proposed an amendment for mining in areas that were studied by reputed scientific institutes.
Potato imports (Assam) – Assam spends around ₹4,500 crores annually to import potatoes as it hasn’t met its goal of becoming self-sufficient in potatoes. The annual demand for potatoes in the state is about 40 lakh tonnes, but production is only at about 11 lakh tonnes. Most of the imports come from West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh. The potato trade in the state is concentrated in the hands of a few who control the price. Despite measures taken by the State Food and Civil Supplies Department after public outcry, there isn’t a permanent solution.
Why it matters: Potatoes are grown in Assam despite the state agriculture department not placing an emphasis on it. Since potatoes are perishable, they require cold storage facilities. Assam has only 30 compared to more than 2600 in Uttar Pradesh and more than 1200 in West Bengal. Assam also doesn’t have an MSP for potatoes, unlike Uttar Pradesh and Assam. In 2015, the state set a target of becoming self-sufficient in potatoes by 2019-20.
🔢 KEY NUMBER
70% – The percentage of Indian millionaires who prefer to send their children abroad for school. It was revealed in a Hurun India Wealth Report 2021 survey.