Fact of the matter

Scientists are trying hard to dispel the fears of villagers near the proposed site of the India-based Neutrino Observatory in Theni about the research centre harming their lives and livelihood.

Published : Apr 15, 2015 12:30 IST

Goats grazing  near the fenced-off INO project site in Theni district.

Goats grazing near the fenced-off INO project site in Theni district.

IT is stillness all around. The earthmover stands idle. Nearby is a tractor-trailer with a bowser whose water has not been put to use for several days. Steel rods meant for the construction of a pillar for a bridge across the stream and heaps of blue metal lie unused. Two sheds meant for storing building materials are locked up. All telltale signs of construction work having come to an abrupt halt. About a kilometre away stands the 1.2-km-tall Ambarappar hill whose innards will house the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO), a joint project of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST). The Tamil Nadu government is to provide the infrastructure support. The hill is situated two kilometres from T. Pudukkottai village in Pottipuram panchayat, Theni district, Tamil Nadu. Local villagers call it Ambarappar hill after the local deity. The setting is pastoral and idyllic.

The construction work for the INO came to a halt following an interim stay obtained by Vaiko, general secretary of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), from the Madras High Court Bench at Madurai on March 26. The court restrained the Central government from commencing the work on the proposed INO in the Bodi West hills region or the Ambarappar hill without environmental clearance from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB). Justices S. Tamilvanan and V.S. Ravi granted the interim injunction on a public interest litigation petition filed and argued in person by Vaiko, who fears damage to the environment if a tunnel with a cavern was excavated in the hill to set up an underground observatory with a massive detector to study particles called neutrinos.

In a counter-affidavit filed on behalf of the Central government, Sekhar Basu, Director, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai, said, “Since the financial sanction [for the INO project] has just now been accorded, the drawings and other civil engineering-related paperwork will now be taken in earnest and placed for consideration” by the TNPCB. The TNPCB informed the judges that it was mandatory to receive its permission before establishing or operating such projects in the State.

People’s fears

A Frontline team which visited the site on April 1 saw, beyond the bridge to be built, a fence erected all around the hill. Two gates in it were open. A shepherd was herding back home goats grazing at the foot of the hill. “Shepherds are now allowed to graze their cattle inside the fenced-up area because Vaiko has obtained a stay on the construction work,” said R. Ramakrishnan, a farmer from T. Pudukkottai village. “Otherwise, for the past two years, the police did not even allow us to celebrate our annual festival at the Ambarappar shrine,” he said, pointing to it some distance away. Ramakrishnan (44) is spearheading the opposition to the INO project from the nearby villages.

T. Pudukkottai, about two kilometres of the project, is the nearest village to the INO site. Ramakrishnapuram is 2.5 km away and Pottipuram is about three kilometres away. Seven villages come under the Pottipuram panchayat: Pottipuram, Chinna Pottipuram, T. Pudukkottai, Ramakrishnapuram, Kuppan Acharipatti, Thimmi Naickenpatti, and Thimmi Naickenpatti Colony.

At T. Pudukkottai, anger prevails against the INO project. What has anguished the residents is that “from the government side, nobody came to explain to us the merits and demerits of the project”.

Chandra Ponraj, president of Pottipuram panchayat, listed the fears that seem to have gripped everyone. She said in Tamil: “If the INO project becomes a reality, pregnancies will result in miscarriage. Children will be born with deformities. Hair will fall off the head. When the radioactive [neutrino] particles fly and settle on the ground, even grass won’t grow. Since the particles fly, cancer will spread. There will be breathing disorders. Nobody came to tell us about all this, but they have begun the work on the project.”

On being asked who told her all this, Chandra Ponraj replied, “We knew all this before Vaiko toured these areas.”

Her words had an uncanny resemblance to those used by fisher-women who were taking part in the agitation at Idinthakarai village in Tirunelveli district against the commissioning of the first nuclear power reactor at Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu. If sustained protests broke out against the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project in September 2011 when the first unit was all set to be commissioned three months later, emotions started running high against the INO project in the nearby villages soon after the construction work began at the INO site. Indeed, Naba K. Mondal, Project Director, INO; D. Indumathi, Professor at the Institute of Mathematial Sciences, Chennai, and the outreach coordinator for the INO project; and Stephen Inbanathan, Assistant Professor of Physics at American College, Madurai, and one of the collaborators of the project; are puzzled over people’s reactions against the project in the past few months.

Villagers fear that the neutrino detector will unleash “radioactive [neutrino] particles” that will affect their lives. “Drinking water will be affected. Grass will not grow. We are staying at the foot of the hill. We cannot lead a peaceful life. So we are saying that we do not need this project,” said S. Pankajam, who retired as a teacher from the primary school at Ramakrisnapuram.

Ramakrishnan argued that once the INO became a reality, agriculture would be destroyed and so their sole means of livelihood would be permanently lost. The villagers were dependent on borewells to irrigate their land. Using water from the wells, they cultivate ragi, maize, pulses and vegetables. Since the region received good rains, these are cultivated most of the year. Ramakrishnan said: “But the government has thrust this project on us. A magnet weighing 50,000 tonnes is going to be installed in the cavern in the hill. Using powerful explosives, they will gouge out a 2-km tunnel in the hill, which will lead to the cavern. So the water table will be affected. Aquifers will change their direction. Water sources will dry up. People dependent on agriculture will lose their jobs. Fourteen dams, including the Idukki and Periyar dams in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, will be affected [by blasting the tunnel].”

What has also made the villagers turn against the project is the fence at the foot of the Ambarappar hill which has deprived them of grazing land for their cattle. They alleged that even though construction work had not begun inside the fenced-up area, policemen were not allowing the villagers to graze their cattle there. Fifteen kilometres away, at Kundal Naickenpatti, J. Veeramuthu was exercised over it. “If a vast area around the hill is fenced off, how can people graze their cattle there?” he asked.

The residents credit their “awakening” to the ill effects of the project to Vaiko, who has been systematically addressing people in villages near and far from the INO project site from January 2015. On March 1, the social activist Medha Patkar and Vaiko together addressed a string of meetings at Sellampatti, Usilampatti, Andipatti, Theni, Uppukkottai, Kombucheri, Nagalapuram, Thimmi Naickenpatti, Pottipuram, T. Pudukkottai, Ramakrishnapuram, Pudupallam, Thevaram and other places. “It was Vaiko who brought Medha Patkar to all these places and they enlightened us,” the villagers chorused.

J. Singamuthu Veeran of Kundal Naickenpatti, where Vaiko addressed a wayside meeting, wore his admiration for Vaiko on his sleeve. He said, “Vaiko knows everything. He can argue in court, debate with scientists and address meetings.” Veeramuthu (46), a bus driver, praised Vaiko for creating an “awakening” among the villagers about the harmful effects of the INO. He said that “radioactive rays” from the INO would ruin the villages around. “It was claimed that the chemical plant at Bhopal was safe and that no accident would take place. But an accident happened at Bhopal. If radiation leaks [from the INO], where will we go?” he asked. M. Andavar at Ramakrishnapuram conceded that protests against the INO had burgeoned only in the last three months.

Studying neutrinos

What are neutrinos? How do they fascinate scientists? Why did the DAE and the DST choose the Ambarappar hill/West Bodi to locate the detector in a cavern there, with a tunnel leading to the hill?

Naba K. Mondal, who is also Senior Professor, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, called neutrinos “shy particles” which feebly interact with the rest of matter. They are the second most abundant particles in the universe after photons, which are particles of light. Like photons and electrons, they are one of the fundamental particles of nature. “Scientists around the world are studying neutrinos coming from the sun, cosmic rays and [produced by] nuclear power reactors. They study the properties of neutrinos. If we can put together all this knowledge, it will help us to completely understand neutrinos and their role in the evolution of the universe,” said Mondal.

Since neutrinos are feebly interacting particles, they pass through the atmosphere, the earth or human bodies without doing anything. So it is difficult to detect them. If the experiments to detect neutrinos are done on the earth’s surface, it will be difficult to filter out the neutrino events from the cosmic ray particles which form a background. “If you go underground, with a rock coverage of one kilometre or more, then all the cosmic rays in the background get absorbed by the earth and the rock above. Only then neutrinos are detected. This is the reason for locating neutrino detectors underground,” Mondal explained. The Geological Survey of India (GSI), whose help the DAE sought for locating a site, said a cover of granite monolithic rock was the best suited for building an underground neutrino observatory and that south India had such volcanic rock, which was old and strong. The GSI identified a few places in south India, which included Singara in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, which was the first choice.

Singara was preferred because 13 km of tunnels had already been excavated for the Pykara Ultimate Stage Hydroelectric Power Plant (PUSHEP) next to the site. Besides, water and electricity were available at the site and there was access too. However, with the re-designation of the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary as a tiger reserve and the presence of an elephant corridor, the Forest Department refused clearance. Thereafter, the GSI suggested the steep slopes of hills in the Theni district.

The Bodi West hills area was chosen because it afforded the shortest tunnel length of 1,910 metres. The tunnel portal could be located in poromboke land. The rock quality is very good. The area, although classified as a reserve forest, does not have dense vegetation. There would be no displacement of people. No private land or farmland was to be acquired. There would be no felling of trees either.

On January 5, the Union Cabinet approved the INO project and sanctioned Rs.1,500 crore for it.

The INO project entailed the excavation of a two-kilometre long tunnel in the hill, Mondal said. At the end of the tunnel will be a cavern which will be the underground laboratory housing the detector. The tunnel and the cavern will have a rock overburden of 1,200 metres to filter out cosmic rays. The detector is a huge device with an indigenously built magnetised iron calorimeter with sophisticated electronic circuits, and the detector will weigh 50,000 tonnes. The detector itself will be 48 metres long, 16 metres wide and 14 metres tall. It will be the world’s most massive neutrino detector.

Mondal said, “In the INO, we will search for dark matter, which is a new experiment. Double beta decay experiments will be done. These are experiments which are in the forefront of particle physics research all over the world.” On the INO campus will be scientists and technicians, with the latter looking after the detector’s health.

One of the developments that have angered the residents of T. Pudukkottai, Ramakrishnapuram and Pottipuram is that the police did not allow them to celebrate the annual festival at the Ambarappar shrine in the past two years. On March 28, the police, claiming that it was a prohibited area, did not allow the villagers to climb Ambarappar hill to light a lamp near the “deepa sthambham” on the peak. This caused protests ( The Hindu , Madurai edition, March 30, 2015).

“They are excavating our hill and they are going to kill our deity. We are worshipping our god for ages,” said M. Thangamani, a villager, angrily. P. Muthulikamu and Peria Karuppu Thevar explained what the Ambarappar festival, celebrated every year on the tenth day of the Tamil month of “Masi”, entailed: the festivities include a bull race, folk music and dance such as “urumi melam” and “thevarattam”, and “anna dhanam” (free distribution of food). “In the last two years, we have not celebrated this festival because of restrictions by the police and the government,” one of the residents said.

The villagers were also worried that they would not be allowed to graze their cattle around the hill. About 26.825 hectares of poromboke land around the hill, given by the Tamil Nadu government, has been fenced up.

According to Muthulikamu, the people of T. Pudukkottai had “boycotted” the “public hearing” held on July 8, 2010, held in a school at Ramakrishnapuram. “When the [Theni District] Collector P. Muthuveeran came there… we did not go there. From the beginning, Pudukottai residents had been opposing the project,” Muthulikamu added.

Public meeting

A public hearing was not mandated for the project, Indumathi asserted. A public meeting was, therefore, held on July 8 in the school. About 1,000 villagers attended the meeting, where a short film was shown on how the INO would be built and questions were answered. At the end of the meeting, the District Collector, who chaired it, announced that the project would come up near Pottipuram with the full support of the people, she said.

Outreach activities began for the project from January 2010, said Indumathi. This included tea-stall meetings and door-to-door visits to explain about the project. After this, scientists concentrated more on outreach for students and teachers. There were meetings about the INO in colleges in and around Madurai, Theni, Dindigul, Periyakulam and Bodinaickanur. “There was no significant opposition to the project from the locals until last September when the INO collaborators visited the site. The opposition has been slowly growing since January [2015] because of the misinformation campaign… about radioactivity, water contamination, etc., which is not true,” she said.

Asked how he was planning to dispel the fears among the villagers, Stephen Inbanathan said that he planned to organise more meetings with individual villagers, particularly at T. Pudukkottai, Ramakrishnapuram and Pottipuram, to explain the nature of the INO project. “We are planning to take some of the villagers to the Centre [the Inter-Institutional Centre for High Energy Physics (IICHEP) at Vadapazhanji, Madurai] to show that the detector will not produce radioactivity,” he said. “From the beginning, the villagers have been stressing the same points: that the detector will release radiation and so children will be born with deformities; that no scientist will stay there; that it is a military weapon site and so Pakistan will target it and that they will be affected, and so on. We had earlier convinced them. But they are saying these things again now. So this outreach will be an on-going, continuing programme.”

On April 1, a festival was under way at the Kaliamman temple at Ramakrishnapuram, about half a kilometre from T. Pudukkottai. There was an air of gaiety, and vendors, selling plastic toys, were spreading their wares on the ground. Loudspeakers blared devotional songs from films. At a tea stall, which remained closed, several elderly residents were seated. Andavar was worried that agriculture would be affected. For the aquifers would change their course owing to the shock waves that would hit them during the tunnel excavation with explosives. “We have been protesting against the INO project for the past three months. We have intensified our struggle in the last one month,” he said.

Everyone listened when S. Karuppaiah (65) spoke. It was obvious that he keeps a tab on what Naba Mondal or Indumathi says about the project. Karuppaiah said, “We do not know what a neutrino is. But the project engineers laid the foundation stone for the project. Only now they are giving public lectures about the project. Naba says that the project will have no big impact on our lives. We are confused. The shock waves emanating from the blasting of the tunnel will change the direction of the underground flow of water. It will damage our agriculture in a big way. This is a small village. Even if scientists come forward to explain the project to us, we will tell them to change the site. We have this attitude [which is opposed to the project]. We are in panic. Let them go and do research elsewhere.”

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