Science and People: India’s Neutrino Observatory

The Tamil Nadu government has reportedly told the Supreme Court that it does not want the Indian Neutrino Observatory (INO) to be located in a sensitive ecological area in the Western Ghats, given the damage to wildlife, biodiversity and public unrest against the project.

Neutrinos, first postulated in 1930 by Wolfgang Pauli, are naturally occurring elementary particles with no electric charge, emanating mainly from the Sun and moving almost at the speed of light. The study of neutrinos should reveal the origin of the Universe and form the basis of esoteric studies.

The government had proposed build an INO 1.3 km underground in the Singara-Masinagudi area of ​​the Niligiris district of Tamil Nadu, in 2005. Following sustained public resistance, the government abandoned the Singara-Masinagudi site and decided to build INO in Theni district in Tamil Nadu.

But the reasons why the site of Singara-Masinagudi was abandoned also apply to the current site of Theni district and deserve to be known.

The INO project requires the construction of large caverns 1.2 km underground, with several kilometers of approach length, tunnels and connecting and safety roads. It will involve the blasting of rocks and the use of large earthmoving machinery.

An estimate of the volume of rock and earth spoil to be excavated is around 225,000 cubic meters (625,000 tonnes). This will have to be transported out of the underground site by convoys of tipper and tipper trucks. Spoil will be disposed of in landfills in designated low-lying areas, altering natural rainwater drainage patterns and irreversibly deserting large tracts of land, both inside and outside the forest zone.

Several thousand tons of construction materials such as bitumen, cement, steel, stone aggregates and sand will be imported to build access roads and underground structures. This will require land acquisition and deforestation if necessary, to store construction machinery and materials to provide concrete for construction and bitumen for roads. The noise, smoke and dust that accompany it over the years of construction will have an irreversible impact on human, plant and animal life. INO-related industrial/construction activity will result in the loss of native vegetation and entire ecosystems in the area.

A 50 kiloton electromagnet and other scientific devices installed underground will require dedicated power generation and transmission lines, resulting in further environmental degradation.

Regardless of the assurances given by the project promoters, only the environmentally illiterate or the scientifically challenged would deny the enormous irreversible environmental and ecological damage threatened by the INO project. An environmental impact assessment may suggest measures to minimize or mitigate damage, but cannot legitimately address the permanent destruction/disruption of ecosystems and the extinction of species.

Deforestation in the Western Ghats region will seriously compromise the water holding capacity of the subsoil and cause the streams and streams in the region to dry up. This will reduce the flow of already depleting downstream rivers, on which huge populations of Tamil Nadu depend for their livelihoods and sustenance.

There is a conflict between the scientific and intellectual gains expected from the INO project and the direct and immediate damage to the environment and ecology, and the later direct and indirect harmful effects, in particular on the weakest layers of the society. Hence the need to ask difficult questions:

1 – How does the use of INO for investigations into the origin of the universe help solve the problems of food crisis and poverty and, in the context of impending climate change, the larger problems water and food crises and massive migration of people due to the desertification of the subcontinent?

2 – Has a cost-benefit analysis of the INO project been carried out and if so, what are the social benefits considered?

3 – It is easy to argue that cutting edge scientific research cannot be stopped because neutrino research is part of the human quest for knowledge. Indeed, justifying the INO, Dr. D.Indumathi of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences had declared: “We still do not know if the neutrinos are from Majorana or from Dirac”. How important is it for the non-scientific community to get excited about such esoteric puzzles, which even most of the scientific community wouldn’t begin to understand?

science and society

Scientific research relies on the industry that provides the material and consumes a lot of electrical energy, from the manufacturing and manufacturing phase to installation and operation. There are types of science that do not even remotely meet the basic needs of society. It’s not that money can’t be found to fund esoteric science projects, but that such spending doesn’t contribute to development here and now for people.

A scientist, a doctor, an engineer, may understand development differently than a small farmer, a factory worker or a daily wager. We can therefore seek the purpose of development, as provided for in the Cocoyoc Declaration of the United Nations of 1974: “Our first concern is to redefine the very purpose of development. It is not a question of developing things but of developing man. Human beings have basic needs: food, housing, clothing, health, education. Any process of growth that does not lead to their realization – or, even worse, disrupts them – is a travesty of the idea of ​​development”.

INO’s mission is to advance scientific knowledge. It will contribute to economic growth by increasing the GDP as huge sums are spent on its construction, operation and maintenance. Someone who understands development in terms of increased economic activity and GDP growth rates – like our economists – would support the project. However, INO is not even able to meet people’s basic needs from a distance.

This will have adverse effects on the environment, which holistically includes all people, wildlife and vegetation (ecosystems). Worse still, it disrupts people’s legitimate basic needs and mocks the idea of ​​people-centred development, as it effectively snatches bread from hungry people. To be fair, this does not only apply to the INO project, although it is the immediate cause for addressing the question of what kind of science is appropriate or ethically acceptable for people-centered development.

The INO project does not provide any benefit to people or society in the future, but involves immediate and irremediable social and environmental/ecological costs. Mature thinking recognizes, understands and accepts inequalities in society. However, if development is to be of and for people, the ethos of political leadership requires that the actions of those in positions of power aim to reduce social and economic inequalities.

The current governance system uses the economic-political power structure to centralize the accumulation of wealth. It accentuates economic inequalities. Development planned in the hope and expectation of future economic benefits for part of the population, by paying the costs here and now to a different set of people who are already lower on the socio-economic scale, is an institutionalized development plan. social injustice.

The INO project may provide intellectual and professional benefits to a tiny minority, but it does not provide greater social or economic benefits. It can only be called socially inappropriate and ecologically and ecologically disastrous. Ethical and moral questions must take precedence over economic or intellectual imperatives. So, from a holistic point of view, the INO project deserves to be abandoned.

Maj Gen SGVombatkere, VSM (Retd), holds a PhD in Structural Civil Engineering from IIT, Madras. His current areas of interest are business development and strategy

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