India’s Neutrino Observatory awaits wildlife, pollution clearances from Tamil Nadu govt

The India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) is awaiting the Wildlife and Pollution clearance from the government of Tamil Nadu. The observatory will cement India’s position in the field of particle physics research and had received a go ahead from the Environment Ministry of the Central government.

The Environment Ministry clearance has come nearly a decade after the proposal for the observatory came up. The Union Government had said that it will be operational in seven years’ time. The INO is located in the Bodi West Hills (BWH) in Theni district of Tamil Nadu.

“India based Neutrino Observatory (INO) has applied for Wildlife Clearance to the Govt. of Tamil Nadu in early 2018, as also building clearances for the Inter Institutional Centre for High Energy Physics (ICHEP), Madurai and INO, Pottipuram sites. Clearance from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (PCB) has to be applied after obtaining above clearances,” the Minister of State in Ministry of Personnel, PG & Pension and in the Prime Minister’s Office, Dr. Jitendra Singh said in a written reply to a question during the ongoing Parliament session.

The Madurai bench of the Madras High Court had in its order of March 2015 said that no scientific work can start at the underground site before getting clearance from the Tamil Nadu PCB. The Environment Ministry’s clearance was also challenged in the National Green Tribunal, but it has been upheld, paving the way for the Observatory.

So far the government has received complaints from the local denizens about the access to a local temple. “There have been some complaints regarding access to a temple and grazing for cattle from the residents of nearby villages. INO authorities have taken up outreach programme in the matter,” Dr. Singh informed the Parliament.

The Tamil Nadu Government had allotted land of 26.8 ha for the project at Bodi West Hills following a letter from the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). The project will entail setting up of an Observatory, its surface facilities and for setting up of the National Centre for High Energy Physics-INO Centre. The Central Government expects to operationalize the INO in seven years after obtaining all statutory clearances.

The sanctioned cost of the project is Rs. 1583 Crore (USD 24.33 million) and is promoted by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. This will be the second project for neutrino research in India. The earlier project came to a stop after the Kolar Gold Fields were shut down in mid-1990s.

The Observatory will study atmospheric neutrinos in a 1,300 meters deep cave. When completed, the main magnetised iron calorimieter (ICAL) experiment is envisaged to include the world’s largest magnet, four times larger than the 12,500-tonne magnet in the Compact Muon Solenoid detector at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.

Neutrinos are harmless and not till long ago were considered mass-less. Billions of neutrinos pass through our body every second, without hurting an atom or a molecule in our body. Two Nobel Prizes have already been given to scientists for research on these neutrinos. The neutrinos are part of elementary particle shower in natural cosmic rays and to isolate them require special observatories where they are secluded from other radiation.

To create trained scientists to construct and operate this laboratory, an Inter-Institutional Centre for High Energy Physics (IICHEP) is being established near the Madurai Kamaraj University campus.

Former Indian President and scientist Dr APJ Kalam has sought to allay fears around the project by writing in the Hindu (the English-language daily) in July 2015: “Just as CERN has become famous for its Large Hadron Collider project, Theni and the surrounding region will become famous for neutrino particle physics experiments. I expect great scientific and technological activity in the project site and the neighbouring academic institutions.”