4 August 2008
A huge new scientific experiment plans to go looking for tiny particles in the middle of India’s oldest Biosphere Reserve, moving mountains of rock and earth as it goes. Tarsh Thekaekara has his doubts about what is being done in the name of pure science.
Singara Hill in the middle of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve is the proposed site of the controversial Indian Neutrino Observatory.
Tigers are under threat. That's not news. What is new is that the threat comes from a huge science project proposed for a tiger reserve in Tamil Nadu.
India is home to the largest tiger population in the world, and the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve is one of the most important tiger habitats in the country. There are plans to put up a major Neutrino Observatory (INO) inside the Singara hill in the middle of this Reserve. It will tunnel more than two kilometres into the hill and build a 100,000 ton iron detector underground.
I grew up in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve and instinctively felt the project had to be moved out of here. But I am also a physics graduate and felt I had to talk to everyone involved and take an impartial view of the whole situation. At first I was convinced that the environmentalists were going overboard with their protests. But what is fair when the playing field is not level; when the Government of India, an ex-President and influential top-notch scientists are opposed by a mere handful of concerned environmentalists? Closer inspection brought to light implications too serious to ignore.
The Biosphere Reserve
The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR) is a large tract of over 5,500 square kilometres of contiguous forest spread across three states and containing six protected areas. It was the first Biosphere Reserve in India, established under UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere programme in September 1986. At least four of the major rivers of south India originate in this region - the Bhavani, Moyar, Kabini and Chaliyar. It is also home to a host of endangered and endemic species. In all, 676 species of plants, 173 species of vertebrates, 12 species of amphibians, 38 species of fish, 46 species of reptile, 87 species of birds and 28 species of mammals (including tiger, leopard, gaur, wild dog, bear, deer and elephant) live around the proposed site for the project.
These are tiny, chargeless, almost massless particles that are generated in nuclear reactions. They pass through matter almost undisturbed - even the earth seems immaterial to them. But a few of them may collide and interact with a nucleus of some element on earth - this is what the physicists hope to detect and study. The laboratory proposes to study atmospheric neutrinos, generated in the sun and stars. Putting it underground ensures that all other particles and rays are naturally filtered out. But not just underground - the 100,000 ton iron detector has to be at least a thousand metres underground.
What exactly we gain by studying them is difficult to define. Fundamental research rarely has any direct applications in everyday life, and essentially only widens the horizon of human understanding. But as far as history has shown, fundamental scientific research has lead to unforeseen and often positive developments for humanity. Einstein's explanation of the photoelectric effect in 1905 got him the Nobel Prize only in 1922, and the applications of it – solar cells to generate electricity – are becoming more and more relevant every day.
Then again, Einstein did not threaten the survival of the tiger. Is fundamental research today taking a new stance that could lead us to an unforeseen ecological and environmental crisis, in a world that's paying heavily for its mistakes and struggling to reverse the damage done?
The Western Ghats are one of the oldest and most dense rock formations in the world. This makes it ideal for drilling, since it won't collapse easily. The INO team say they cannot drill vertically down, so they have to find a steep hill and drill into it horizontally from the side. Another reason not so widely talked about is that the observatory needs three megawatts of power - and your average Indian hill does not have that kind of power readily to hand. Singara already has a hydroelectric plant, the Pykara Ultimate Stage Hydro Electric Project (PUSHEP) inside it, so this won't be a problem. PUSHEP drilled into the same hill, so all the shears and joints have been mapped and a second tunneling project would be relatively easy. Singara is also just 240 kilometres to Bangalore.
But this 'a little more damage won't make much difference' argument is dangerous, and could open up a pandora's box to a host of other R&D projects that need to be underground.
There are a host of other reasons why Singara is ideal - but absolutely no information on the efforts that went into looking for a suitable site. The only other site identified is in the unlikely region of the Lower Himalayas, also next to a power station. It is difficult to believe that no other site can be found - for example, in some parts of Kerala or other parts of the Western Ghats.
An ideal situation would be a complete study of the entire country with appropriate methodology – GIS studies of slopes, accessibility, geology and existing facilities. In the unlikely event that no appropriate site for horizontal drilling exists, alternative sites should be explored with vertical drilling or sub-horizontal drilling. For a project costing nine billion rupees ($180 million) it would be peanuts to conduct the necessary studies to identify a site with fewer environmental implications.
The logical conclusion is that two or three possible sites were chosen, and then the budget was tailor-made to suit one of them. There is a clear disdain for the considerable effort India is putting into conservation; anyone who questions the logic of this exercise is categorized as obscurantist. This is a serious bias that is certainly unexpected from scientists.
A quick run through the INO website gives the impression that everything is under control – there is not going to be any serious environmental damage. But claims to transparency have been glazed over by their refusal to make public important documents - like the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and the Environment Management Plan (EMP) - even to serious, established environmentalists like the WWF and Nilgiri Wildlife Environmental Association.
This lack of transparency casts a shadow of doubt over all the claims made by the scientists and the long-term motives of the project. Since it is a scientific project without commercial gain, an EIA and EMP is recommended - but not mandatory. But since the size of the project exceeds 20,000 cubic metres, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) requires an EIA. So, somewhere behind all this confusion, the INO team is hiding the EIA and EMP. The project has been given the green light from the MoEF - so these documents ought to be in the public domain.
The FAQ website http://www.imsc.res.in/~ino makes lots of apparently sincere claims - but none are backed by hard facts or significant information.
The mostly widely debated issue is the site location. The INO team vehemently deny that it is in the middle of the forest - and insist it is on the (TNEB) Tamil Nadu Electricity Board's land. In fact, the forest department leased a small piece of land to the electricity department for the hydroelectric power plant, and the entrance to the tunnel lies on this land. But it is surrounded by forests. I doubt if the elephants and tigers have been informed that they are no longer welcome on that little piece of land.
The next issue is the construction. The plan is to excavate 225,000 cubic metres of the hill - despite a complete ban on mining and quarrying in the Nilgiris. The debris will weigh 630,000 tons and will require almost 80,000 truckloads to move it out. Add 100,000 tons for the detector and 35,000 tons of construction material - another 17,000 truckloads. So, during the scheduled four years of construction, every single day there will be 130 truckloads passing through 35 kilometres of forest - and two tiger reserves.
The INO website claims they are going to store the muck close to the site, and will take it out slowly, at the rate of six trucks a day. This seems ludicrous. At this rate, simple maths suggests that it would take 36 years to get rid of it. They couldn’t even get all the construction material to the site in four years.
The PUSHEP engineers also had a similar bright idea - with disastrous results. During construction, in May 1996, vast quantities of quarry muck - residue from the tunneling - was dumped into the Karimar water hole, which flows into the Moyar river. The entire river was contaminated, making the water undrinkable for the animals as well as the tribal hamlets downstream. It became so bad that the sluice gate at Glenmorgan had to be opened to flush the river. Even so, there has been a slow leaching of the muck into the river for many years - and there are still 200,000 tons sitting in the middle of the forest. Should they be allowed to add to it?
They also claim they will reuse half the debris for construction. But this sounds like eyewash again. They don't plan to have any major buildings on the surface - so all the debris has to go back into the hill. It seems a little unlikely that they will tunnel out 225,000 cubic metres, only to fill half of it back in.
However many trucks there are, they will use a road that cuts through a crucial elephant corridor connecting the Eastern and the Western Ghats. Elephants are long-ranging beasts and migrate over great distances. The migratory paths are passed on genetically, and are not easily re-learned. The INO website claims to employ trackers to monitor elephant movements and regulate construction as necessary. But no biologist has yet managed to convince the elephants to put in their travel itineraries in advance. There are 25 female elephants to every male, with the males being poached for ivory. All calves in a herd are now likely to have the same father. Conservationists are concerned about the limited gene pool and possible in-breeding. Cutting off migratory paths will only add to the pressure.
The last straw
The INO team claims that they have been talking to local conservationists and environmentalists for the last year, and have been completely transparent. Yet they fail even to acknowledge that the 130-year-old Nilgiri Wildlife and Environmental Association - the oldest conservation organization in the country - prepared an independent report. It is based on a site visit by forest officials, scientists, INO representatives and members of the Association. The report categorically states that many of those present ‘strove hard to drive home the point: No INO in the Singara area of the Nilgiris’.
The scientists seem genuinely concerned about minimizing the damage the project is going to do to the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. But somehow they don't seem to see that any more damage could be the last straw. One more major threat – even with minimized damage, will be the beginning of the end
‘The project will undoubtedly affect the Asian Elephant and almost every other species in the area, but the bigger problem with a project like this is the massive infrastructure development that is going to happen in this fragile area.
'Their offer to offset the damage they are going to cause by putting a small percentage of the budget into conservation is ridiculous. Its like suggesting we kill off a few tigers and elephants, sell all their body parts and use the money for conservation.’
Ajay Desai, the co-chair of IUCN's Asian Elephant Specialist Group
‘Development for deprived communities living at the fringe of the Reserve is essential. But a project like this won't benefit the local people at all. Its not like they are going to send our Masinagudi (small town close to the proposed site) boys into the hill with a pick axe each and shovel in each hand. All the money spent on construction and after, will only go to multi-national companies, and will only highlight the difference between the élite and deprived in our country.’
N. Mohanraj, WWF's Coordinator for the Nilgiris and Eastern Ghat Landscape
‘Every wildlife habitat has a threshold level of threats it can handle. The Mudumalai Tiger Reserve has already reached that threshold, and is under attack from all sides – the booming, indiscriminate tourist industry, the massive cattle over-grazing, the huge traffic coming through.’
R Arumugam, a biologist working with WWF India, has spent 20 years in the forests around the Reserve.