No, this is not a post about the The Quark and the Jaguar type adventures in the simple and complex.
Mari Marcel Thekaekara writes about an ambitious scientific project to be housed in the middle of the tiger sanctuary at Mudumalai which threatens the sanctuary and the wild life:
Few environmentalists even are aware of the fact that a top level scientific project, the India-based Neutrino Observatory, is scheduled to be built in Singara, in the Mudumalai Sanctuary in the heart of tiger and leopard territory. Scientists who presented the news to a shocked local audience in Ooty argued that this was a dream project which was the pride and joy of the Indian scientific world. Questions regarding genuine environmental concerns about the impact on the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve were met with defensive reactions. The atmosphere at the Ooty Collectorate, where the presentation was made, turned into practically a pitched battle between the scientists versus the conservationists. Raised voices and unnecessarily rude comments are futile and counterproductive. However, many of the questions asked by the Nilgiris activists needed valid answers from the INO team and the Chennai-based Care Earth group, an NGO presenting the pros and cons of the project.
While few people would oppose a science project described as Abdul Kalam’s dream, the question being asked by serious local residents and environmental scientists is whether one can really force the country to choose between Science or The Tiger? It’s a ludicrous proposition.
Explaining the Neutrino Project to lay people is a difficult and complicated task. Those interested can go to the INO website for the technical details. For the lay reader it is sufficient to know that an enormous underground observatory is planned in Singara, within the core Tiger Reserve of the Mudumalai sanctuary.
Though Thekaekara, unfortunately, does not give the URL for the INO site, here it is, for those of you who are so inclined; I also would have liked the information on the scientists who made the presentation, which, again, unfortunately, is missing in the piece.
The damage that Thekaekara describes that would be inflicted on the sanctuary read horrifying:
The INO project needs 52,000 tons of iron in the first stage and another 50,000 tons in the second stage only for the detector. Additionally, approximately another 35,000 tons of cement, steel, PVC, copper, aluminium, sand and other building materials will be needed. This huge volume of iron and other material will come from Mysore (nearest railway station) normally moved in 20 ton trucks. New roads through the forests will be essential. Normally the Forest department prohibits such disturbance of core areas.
Equally problematic is the debris and muck that will be generated. The official Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has not yet been released but rough calculations based on the dimensions and scale of the project can be taken from the latest INO report.
The tunnel will be “D” shaped, 6.5 m wide and 6.5 m tall and 2.38 km long. So, nearly 90,000 cubic metres of rock will be taken out. The cavern complex will consist of an Experiment hall (about 22 m wide, 30 m tall and 120 m long) — about 75,000 cubic metres, a smaller cavern for the control facilities of about half the size, and a loading and storage area of about another 60,000 cubic metres. So that’s 2,25,000 cubic metres totally.
Given the density of granite in the area (2.8g/cm) this translates to 6,25,000 tons of debris or about 78,000 truck loads. That means almost 95,000 trucks, and double that in terms of trips through the forest since the trucks have to go back and forth.
As the construction is scheduled to take about four years, this involves 130 truck trips going through everyday!
Although the INO scientists assured the group that they would contain the damage, local environmentalists have had a bitter experience. Masinagudi has grown from a village of a few hundred people to a town of 10,000 because of the PUSHEP (Pykara Ultimate Stage Hydro Electric Project).
And, there also seems to be some PR mishap:
Ms. Jayshree Vencatesan of Care Earth, when asked how such a project could possibly be located in the heart of the Tiger Reserve, replied that it was on patta land, a remark that enraged serious environmentalists who have watched the slow erosion of animal turf by the tourist and PUSHEP projects. “Does the elephant or tiger read maps to know when a patch of land in the middle of the forest is declared patta?” local conservationists ask.
Finally, Thekaekara also makes references to the muscle and power of INO project in high places:
The INO project has muscle and power in high places. Only the State government and Forest Department permission stands between the Tiger Reserve and destruction.
A very disturbing and saddening piece!
Update: A bit of poking around at the INO site took me to their FAQ page, which does answer the question about the location selection (there are also photographs of the site, elsewhere on the page, by the way):
6. What were the factors in deciding the location at Singara?
The main reasons for locating the laboratory at Singara are safety, accessibility, minimal disturbance to environment and ecology and outreach possibilities.
The Nilgiri massif is known to be highly compacted granite which is suitable for tunnelling. The existing underground power station PUSHEP, at Singara, has provided a wealth of data about the existing conditions for tunnelling. In addition the steep northern slopes provide shortest access to the laboratory which is located 1300 meters below the top surface. No other site has this major advantage. When a laboratory is expected to run for decades underground, the safety and long-term stability of the location is a primary requirement.
It was also very clear from the beginning that any site requiring such a large overburden will come under environmentally and ecologically sensitive areas. It was therefore decided that we look for sites where the needed infrastructure already exists so as to cause minimal disturbance.
Accessibility of the site is also crucial. The site at Singara is accessible easily from major cities like Coimbatore, Mysore and Bangalore. Such factors are important to develop a laboratory with participation from scientists from many parts of India and even abroad.
The FAQ goes on to claim that there would neither be new road construction nor forest clearing. The FAQ also answers questions about storing the muck, vehicular traffic disturbance, disturbance during construction, and so on.
Update: NBRAlliance, in a comment below, alerts me to this blog which has some more information on the issue.