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Tamil Nadu: India-based Neutrino Observatory gets environment clearance

The INO to be set up in Bodi West Hills on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border in Theni district is one of the largest basic sciences projects in the country that would primarily study atmospheric neutrinos produced by cosmic rays in a 1,200 meters deep cave under a mountain.

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In a major development, India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) project which suffered multiple delays for over a decade, was granted environment clearance by (EC) the Ministry of Environment and Forests on Monday to set up the lab in Tamil Nadu’s Theni district weeks after the recommendation of the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of Infra2.

The INO to be set up in Bodi West Hills on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border in Theni district is one of the largest basic sciences projects in the country that would primarily study atmospheric neutrinos produced by cosmic rays in a 1,200 meters deep cave under a mountain.

The EC has been granted by the Ministry amid strong opposition from the local people as well as environmentalists and political parties in the state. The project which faced multiple hurdles was forced to get a fresh EC after the NGT in March last year put in “abeyance” the clearance granted in 2011 and asked the project proponent to get the National Board for Wild Life approval as well.

The MoEF, in its order on Monday, has stipulated specific conditions including two key permission for the project to take off while granting the EC. One is the consent to establish and operate to be obtained from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB). Also, the INO team has to obtain the necessary forest and National Board for Wild Life (NBWL) clearances as per law. The Mathikettan Shola National Park in Idukki district, Kerala, is situated within five km from the project site.

“We are happy that we have been granted the EC. But we have to get few more clearances. We are waiting for all the clearances to come,” Prof D Indumathi, a physicist at Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc) and one of the spokespersons for the neutrino project told DNA. She said that the application for the NBWL clearance has already been filed. “We are waiting for the clearance,” she said, adding that only after NBWL clearance, they could move the  TNPCB for its consent.

After the Tamil Nadu State Expert Appraisal Committee in November last year opined that the INO project cannot be apprised under category B of item 8 (a) ‘Building and construction’ projects, the MoEF wanted the EAC (Infra—2) to consider the proposal at central level as a “special case” and that based on built-up area and total area considerations, identified it as a category 8(a) ‘Building and Construction’ project.  

G Sunderrajan of Poovulagin Nanbargal, an NGO, on whose petition the NGT in March last year cancelled the INO’s EC, said that he strongly condemns the fresh EC granted by the ministry to the INO project. “This clearance is illegal, as it has violated the established laws of this country and a categorical order of NGT. While The NGT has said it is category A project in its judgment, the MoEF has still gone ahead and cleared as category B project. No public hearing was conducted and no proper EIA was done. This is anti-constitutional, anti-people and anti-national. We will strongly take this up in the court of law and in the people's court,” he told DNA.

The EAC, in its meeting on March 5, recommended for the EC after going through the geo-technical investigation report on studies carried out for locating underground laboratory of INO at Pottipuram and deliberating with officials from Defence Research and Development Organisation. The committee also set aside the concerns of radioactivity or leaching of water, besides having no impact of blasting on inhabitation in the vicinity.

Timeline:

2005: A report was submitted to the then prime minister identifying a site in Singara in Nilgiris district to build Indian Neutrino Observatory. After three years the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) granted its clearance. The proposed site for the project had faced stiff resistance from environmental activists as it was on the periphery of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and also because of it close to the elephant corridor.

November 2009: The MoEF rejected the chosen site on the basis of a report filed by the Tiger Conservation Authority and the present site in Theni was suggested as a possible alternative by the Geological Survey of India.

January 5, 2015: The Union Cabinet sanctioned Rs.1,500 crore for the construction of the INO’s laboratory under a hill in Theni district of Tamil Nadu. 

March 26, 2015: The Madurai bench of the Madras High Court passed an interim order that required clearance from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) to be obtained before construction work at the site could begin.

May 2015: The application to the TNPCB was submitted. Despite repeated requests from scientists, the board has neither granted nor denied clearance till date. The High Court stay remains for the project for nearly two years.

March 20, 2017: The southern bench of National Green Tribunal has cancelled the environmental clearance for the project and ordered the INO project team to obtain fresh clearance after conducting public hearings.

November 27, 2017:  State Expert Appraisal Committee (SEAC) noted that this proposal cannot be appraised by the state since it involved many technical features such as tunnelling and excavation of six lakh cubic metres of Charnockite rock from the mountain. It has suggested that it could be appropriately handled by central government.


March 5, 2018: The Expert Appraisal Committee of Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has recommended the project for grant of environmental clearance with certain conditions.

INO project highlights:

The neutrino observatory will be located in a cavern 1.2 km under a rocky mountain in the Bodi West Hills at Pottipuram village in Theni district, about 110 km west of Madurai in Tamil Nadu.

The total plot area required is 31.445 ha (over ground 26.825 ha and underground 4.62 ha). The total built-up area of the underground facility is 20,552 sqm and over ground, facility is 10,762 sqm.

The underground project will comprise a complex of caverns – the main cavern that will house a 50-kilotonne magnetised iron calorimeter detector to study a fundamental particle called neutrino. The main cavern will be will be 130 meters long, 26 meters wide and 30 meters high. There will be two smaller caverns to be used for setting up experiments for neutrino double detector and dark matters.

The complex will be approached by a 2-km long tunnel.

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