Searching for Neutrinos in Mudumalai
by Sudhir Vombatkere on 24 Aug 2008 0 Comment

Neutrinos, first postulated in 1930 by Wolfgang Pauli, are naturally occurring elementary particles without electric charge, which emanate mostly from the Sun and travel almost at the speed of light. The study of neutrinos is expected to reveal the origin of the universe and form the basis of esoteric studies.


INO Project and ecology


An article “Tiger or Science?” (The Hindu, 29 June 2008) says an India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) is planned for construction 1.3-km deep underground in Mudumalai Sanctuary, Niligiri Biosphere Reserve, Western Ghats (


The excavated rock and earth estimated at over 225,000 cubic metres (625,000 tons) will have to be transported away from the site. It will inevitably be dumped in low-lying areas, changing rainwater drainage patterns. Assuming average 1-metre depth of fill, 225,000 cubic metres will require about 22.5 hectares of land that will be irreversibly ruined, whether inside the Sanctuary or outside. Many thousand tons of construction material like bitumen, cement, sand and steel will be imported for construction of approach roads and underground structures, and forest will be clear-felled to store machinery, stone aggregate and sand to feed the machines that provide concrete for construction and bitumen for roads, generating noise, smoke and dust.


The industrial activity connected with the INO will involve loss of native vegetation and entire ecosystems in the area. The natural migration paths of large animals will be broken, and it will result in loss of livelihood for those animals and result in more human-animal conflicts in which the human individual may lose in an immediate sense while the animal species will be exterminated in the long run.


Regardless of assurances given by project proponents, only the environmentally-illiterate or scientifically-challenged will deny that there will be enormous irreversible environmental and ecological damage caused by the underground laboratory. The environment impact assessment (EIA) may suggest measures to minimize or mitigate damage, but fails to address the permanent disruption of ecosystems and extinction of species primarily caused by destruction of forests. Deforestation will reduce the water-retention capacity of the biosphere reserve and thus result in streams and rivulets in the area drying up, reducing flow in downstream rivers that are already showing signs of depletion, rivers on which huge populations in Tamil Nadu depend for life and livelihood.


Do we need esoteric science?


There is thus a clear conflict between the scientific and intellectual gains of the hi-tech INO project and direct and immediate damage to the environment and ecology, and more delayed direct and indirect ill-effects on society, especially weaker sections. Hence the need for some hard questions, specifically:


1.      How does using INO for investigations into the origin of the universe help in solving problems of food crisis and poverty and, in the context of impending climate change, the greater problems of water and food crises and mass migration of people due to desertification of the sub-continent?


2.      What is the benefit of INO to society at large; was a cost-benefit analysis carried out before the EIA?


It is facile to argue that cutting-edge scientific research cannot be stopped because of on-going problems of food shortage and objections of environmentalists as it is part of the human quest for knowledge. When a neutrino observatory is available in Canada – the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, SNO – what is the need for another in India? Dr. D. Indumathi of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences states, “It is still not known whether neutrinos are Majorana or Dirac”. How important is it for humanity to get excited by this riddle? Are we all missing something that only scientists know about development?


It is often said that lack of state-of-the-art scientific research facilities do not allow our scientists to blossom in India. Obviously the proposed India-based Observatory (INO) is such a facility: “The INO is an effort aimed at building a world-class underground laboratory to study fundamental issues in physics. The primary goal of the laboratory is the study of neutrinos from various natural and laboratory sources… Its primary goal is to study the properties and interactions of weakly interacting, naturally occurring particles called neutrinos. … There is world-wide 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, etc”.


Science and society


Such scientific research is possible because of industry that provides the hardware, and it is a capital-intensive guzzler of electric power from the manufacturing and fabrication stage to the installation and operation stage. The point here is that there are kinds of science that do not even remotely serve the basic needs of society. It is not that money cannot be found to finance esoteric science projects, but that such expenditures do not contribute to development.


Development, of course, means different things to different people. The UN Cocoyoc Declaration, 1974, said: Our first concern is to redefine the whole purpose of development. This should not be to develop things but to develop man. Human beings have basic needs: food, shelter, clothing, health, education. Any process of growth that does not lead to their fulfillment - or, even worse, disrupts them - is a travesty of the idea of development”.


INO is meant to advance scientific knowledge and will contribute to economic growth by raising GDP, as huge sums are spent on its construction, operation and maintenance. As increasing economic activity and its rate of growth is the focus of economists, they would support the project. However, the INO fails to even remotely address any of the basic needs of people.


Its ill-effects on the environment (which in the holistic sense includes all people, wildlife and vegetation, in a word, ecosystems) disrupt legitimate basic needs and mock at the idea of people-centered development as it snatches bread from hungry people. To be fair, this does not apply only to the INO project – the latter is the proximate cause for taking up the issue of the kind of science appropriate or ethically acceptable for people-centered development.


Justice and equity issues


There is no justice and equity in the INO project - it offers no returns to society in future and involves immediate and irretrievable ecological costs. Mature thinking recognizes, understands and accepts inequalities in society. But if development is to be of and for people, the ethics of leadership demands that the actions of people in positions of power should be for reducing social and economic inequality.


The current system uses the power structure to maximize profit and accumulate wealth, thereby accentuating inequalities. Development planned in the hope and expectation of economic benefits in the future by payment of here-and-now costs in the social sphere cannot claim to develop people. As the INO project is one that may provide intellectual benefits to a selected few but does not offer social or economic benefits, it can only be termed as inappropriate and ecologically and environmentally disastrous.


This is where ethical and moral questions should take precedence over economic or intellectual ones. From that point of view, the INO project deserves to be dropped.


Maj. Gen S.G. Vombatkere, a PhD from IIT, Madras, is a retired Army officer

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top