More than a decade ago, India embarked on a journey to establish a world-class scientific project, the India-based Neutrino Observatory, a particle physics research project, in Tamil Nadu. But the project has been riled in controversy with allegations that it is being pushed in an unscientific manner without adhering to the basic environmental safeguards.

The Tamil Nadu government, which is against the project, contends that it could harm the threaten the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats. More importantly, it could impact the habitat and survival of wildlife, including that of India’s national animal, the tiger.

The state government recently filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court, opposing the neutrino observatory project.

According to the Indian government, the neutrino observatory project is envisioned as a “world-class underground laboratory to study fundamental issues in science”. The “mega-science project” with an investment of about Rs 1,538 crores is a project of “national importance, and once completed, will be the largest basic sciences project in India” notes the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

Crucial project

The central government states that the proposed neutrino observatory project has been considered one of the four most important neutrino projects worldwide and is the first of its kind collaboration in India with the involvement of nearly 26 institutions and about 100 scientists with the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research as the host institution.

In April 2008, the neutrino observatory project had first got environmental clearance for establishing the India-based Neutrino Observatory at Singam village in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiris district from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. However, in December 2009, the ministry revoked the clearance due to various representations against the project that contended that the project in that area could have an adverse impact on the environment and the wildlife.

It asked the project proponent – the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research – to look for an alternate site following which, in June 2011, clearance was accorded for the observatory at Pottipuram village, Uthampalyam taluk in Tamil Nadu’s Theni district.

In February 2015, the clearance was challenged in the National Green Tribunal by G Sundarrajan of Poovulagin Nanbaragal, a voluntary environmental organisation. In March 2017, the green tribunal put the clearance in abeyance.

Subsequently, in June 2017, the project proponent applied for a fresh environmental clearance from the Tamil Nadu State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority which refused to appraise the project citing huge adverse environmental impact and asked them to approach the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

The Union environment ministry after a series of conversations with the state authority recommended environment clearance for the project in March 2018. The clearance was then challenged in the National Green Tribunal which upheld the clearance in November 2018 after which the matter reached the Supreme Court of India.

According to the Indian government, the project involves the creation of a “tunnel of about two kilometres in length, cutting through the rock formation, at a depth of one km from the peak”. It notes that as ancillary to the tunnel, a housing facility for the scientists who would be manning the laboratory is planned. “The advantage of having the tunnel one kilometre under the Earth is that it would not have any effect, whatsoever on the ecosystem or wildlife.”

The central government contends that there is worldwide interest in this field due to its implications for several diverse and allied fields such as particle physics, cosmology and the origin of the universe, energy production mechanisms in the sun and other stars.

Possible threat

Tamil Nadu, where the proposed project will be located, disagrees with the central government. In 2017, the Tamil Nadu State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority, while noting the reasons for refusing to consider the project for clearance, had said that the tunnelling work involves carrying out blasting the hard and composite rock mass and requires a huge quantity of high strength explosives to break it. It had noted that the Western Ghats is a global biodiversity hotspot and harbours many endemic species of flowering plants and endemic fishes and amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and invertebrates.

On February 15, Supriya Sahu, who is the Additional Chief Secretary, Environment, Climate Change and Forest Department of the Tamil Nadu Government, filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court, emphasising the state’s opposition to the project.

This affidavit highlighted that Theni’s District Forest Officer has not recommended the project since the proposed project falls in the Mathikettan-Periyar Tiger Corridor (as mapped by the National Tiger Conservation Authority), and the fragile ecology of the tiger habitat will get adversely affected by the activities of the proposed project. Similarly, it said, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Chief Wildlife Warden has also not recommended the project citing “enormous irreversible damage likely to be caused by the project”.

It highlighted the project and allied activities there could bring an enormous impact on tigers as even a little vibration in the land can bring enough disturbance to its movement pattern and they will ultimately start avoiding this corridor leading to “no other alternative for genetic dispersion”.

The affidavit noted that the area in question also forms “significant watershed and water catchment of the River Sambal and River Kottakudi and is ecologically highly sensitive”. According to the Tamil Nadu government, the watershed is the lifeline of the local communities as it supports their livelihoods and provides water for drinking and agriculture needs of five districts of the state.

Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister MK Stalin recently reiterated his demand for dropping the project in his state as he cited its adverse impact on wildlife and watershed. Photo credit: Timothy A. Gonsalves/ Wikimedia Commons

Subsequently, on February 21, the central government filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court which dismissed concerns about the project impacting the wildlife and ecology. It said the steep slopes of the Western Ghats provide ideal and stable rock conditions for building a large underground cavern and the site chosen offers stable dense rocks with maximum safety for locating such a laboratory.

It also said that the area has low rainfall, and therefore sparse vegetation with very little wildlife, and no tree cutting is required. The affidavit noted that due to the project there will be no displacement of people, no pollution and that the project does not fall within the ecologically sensitive area or the national park.

Following that, in a separate affidavit on March 23, Gobinda Majumder, who is the neutrino observatory’s project director and professor at the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, stated that, in 2019, the Tamil Nadu government had supported the project. He stated that the Tamil Nadu government was practically sponsoring and supporting this project and highlighted facilities such as fencing arrangement and a 1.2 million litre capacity water tank for this project.

The project director told the Supreme Court that there was a change of government in Tamil Nadu in 2021. “With this came a total change of stance by the new political party. It may be that political parties may form the government, and would come and go, but there is only one state of Tamil Nadu as a corporation sole which never changes. In other words, the mere fact, that there has been a change in the political party in power cannot result in the state of Tamil Nadu taking a stand contrary to the stand taken earlier by it, while being governed by a rival party,” the affidavit said.

In June 2021, Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister MK Stalin met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and presented him with a memorandum requesting him to not implement the project citing serious repercussions of the project. It was highlighted in the memorandum that the project could impact the Mathikettan-Periyar Tiger corridor which has a critical and important function of maintaining the genetic flow, which will be “completely destroyed” due to the project.

In September 2021, a ministerial delegation of the Tamil Nadu government had also met Union Minister for Industries and Commerce Piyush Goyal to drop the project while highlighting the serious repercussions that can be caused by the project. Subsequently, on March 14, 2022, Stalin wrote a letter to PM Modi asking him to advise the authorities to drop the neutrino observatory project in Tamil Nadu.

On this, Majumder in his affidavit said, Tamil Nadu’s latest stand would “retard the progress of the country, as this project, when completed, would place India in the forefront of scientific progress of nations, being one amongst only four-five projects of the world”.

G Sundarrajan, who filed a case in the Supreme Court, told Mongabay-India that the “project is supposed to be a prestigious science project which India has not undertaken in the last seventy years but the entire approach for this is very unscientific”.

“No one can deny the project is in the ecologically fragile area of the Western Ghats,” G Sundarrajan of Poovulagin Nanbaragal, a voluntary environment group, told Mongabay-India. “There must have been a reason that the project was rejected twice. The most basic requirement for this project is a comprehensive environmental study that has not been conducted in the last 10 years. Instead, all laws and rules were bent to clear the project.”

“Even the institutes involved in the project are of high reputation,” said Sundarrajan, who also runs a software company. “Thus, a comprehensive environmental impact study is crucial. What is unfortunate is that the Indian establishment is still not focusing on the protection of the environment despite all the lip service at the international level. On the ground level, we are still not giving it due importance.”

The case is now scheduled for hearing on April 21.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.