How Politics Destroyed India’s Biggest Ever Science Project

The hills of southern Tamil Nadu will soon shelter India’s biggest basic-science hub. Unless canards bury it first.

neutrino

Artist’s impression of India’s largest science lab – the Neutrino Observatory coming up near Madurai. Illustration by Nilanjan Das, based on actual site photograph.

THENI is one of those spots in Tamil Nadu that come comfortingly suffused with temples and lush scenery and the lingering echo of the Western Ghats. “Spicy green ornaments” is how the local administration’s website describes its key attractions. But the lyricism is under threat as the district, which is home to some 12 lakh people and has Madurai (100-odd km away) as its nearest urban callout, is put through seismic churn: It has been chosen as the site of a contentious Rs 1,500 crore neutrino observatory, which will come up under 1,200 metres of rock cover in the Bodi West Hills region.

Neutrinos, one of the most abundant and least interactive particles present in nature (the sun produces over 200 trillion trillion trillion of them every second), are often described as ghost particles for their elusive quality. Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), which is hosting the project, explains that the background of cosmic rays and natural radioactivity make it almost impossible to detect neutrinos on the surface of the earth. Though not nearly as fabled as the God Particle chased by physicists at Geneva-based CERN, the world’s preeminent science lab, TIFR says neutrinos hold the key to several fundamental questions on the origin of the universe, energy production in stars, and the structure of the earth. But that’s hardly the point. The observatory, unmatched in its scale, is a muscular statement of India’s arrival in the comity of Big Science, dominated by the West and feverishly courted by China.

For all that, it has raised the hackles of Vaiko, general secretary of Tamil political party MDMK. Claiming that the observatory will spell disaster for the people and environment at Theni and the neighbouring district of Idukki in Kerala, Vaiko moved the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court, prompting it to issue notices to the central and state governments. At the time of going to press, government lawyers were busy formulating their response.

“When we proposed to build the laboratory (the Cabinet signed off on the funding in January), local people were fearful as they did not know anything about neutrinos and why we need a big underground [setup],” says Naba Kumar Mondal, professor at TIFR and spokesperson for the project. “On top of that, some people, for whatever reason, started a campaign to mislead the locals by saying neutrinos are dangerous for human beings.” There were canards that the underground site will be used for dumping nuclear waste (fact: there will be no such thing), that agriculture will suffer because of the heat from the project (no heat will escape), and that the facility’s 2 km access tunnel will damage a dam which Mondal says is at least 50 km from the site. And then there were questions bordering on the ridiculous. Sample this from the project’s website: “If you are building a world-class lab, all the world’s eyes will be on it. What if an atom bomb is dropped on us?”

The project team enlisted a group of scientists to quell these fears. Locals were also told about the jobs the project would create and the benefits that students in the region could expect from the observatory’s outreach activities. But none of that has been enough to convince Vaiko, who is now persuading the people of Kerala to join his tirade. The day Fortune India visited the site, the road leading up to it was being laid. Initial orders for material have also been issued to Saint-Gobain (for the glass to be used in detectors) and Essar Steel, but the litigation has thrown a huge spanner in the works.

THE IMPASSE DISMAYS people like Mondal all the more because this project was seen as a salve after India lost out to relative minnow Pakistan in the race to become Associate Member at CERN (in December)—thanks to inordinate indecision on the part of the previous government. With it went the opportunity for Indian companies to access CERN’s annual Rs 2,000 crore component-order ecosystem, to speak nothing of the priceless learning that comes along (see ‘Business and the Big Bang’ in Fortune India’s January 2014 issue).

“Science cannot wait for government policy to fall in place,” says Bikash Sinha, former director of Kolkata’s Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics. Beyond its esoteric goals, particle physics is big business, with multibillion-dollar applications in everything from archaeology to nuclear medicine. Missing the CERN seat could well have set Indian science and allied industry back by at least a decade. India can hardly afford an encore.

Few know that neutrino research in this country has already traversed a circuitous path. The first underground laboratory to study the particles was set up at Karnataka’s Kolar Gold Fields (KGF) in the 1960s. The lab carried out several pioneering experiments in the area of cosmic rays and particle physics. In fact, atmospheric neutrino was first detected at KGF way back in 1965. The facility was shuttered in 1992, and serious discussion and preliminary work to identify a new location started in 2001.

In 2006, scientists submitted a detailed report to the funding agencies (Department of Atomic Energy and Department of Science and Technology) about an alternate location. “By 2009, we were almost ready with a site and received environmental and forest clearance,” Mondal says. “However, the government later declared that site as a tiger reserve, and the clearance was withdrawn. We were asked to look for a new site.” The team zeroed in on Theni in 2011 and received all the statutory clearances that same year. From then, it took four years to complete the process of funding approval. Apart from the funding agencies, the process involved a set of international referees, the Scientific Advisory Council of the Prime Minister, and the (recently scrapped) Planning Commission.

Meanwhile, China is galloping ahead with its own neutrino programme. Work started last year on the Jiangmen Underground Neutrino Observatory, located 700 metres underground in the Guangdong province, and reportedly costing $300 million (Rs 2,084.6 crore). The project has attracted 30 international partners and a fair amount of gung-ho press. When we last checked, there was no talk of armageddon.

(First published in the February 2015 issue of Fortune India.)

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