CHENNAI: It’s almost official. The ambitious India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) is going to move out of the western ghats of Tamil Nadu to the eastern ghats of Andhra Pradesh. Reliable sources in the Andhra government told Express that a high-level meeting was being planned among officials of the Department of Atomic Energy, Department of Science and Technology, INO Collaboration and Andhra Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu in the last week of this month or early September to discuss the modalities of the proposed project.
The preliminary talks held so far have been encouraging and the Andhra Pradesh government is positive on realisation of the project, which will put India back in the reckoning in one of the hottest races in physics to unravel unsolved mysteries of the universe.
Sources said the meeting was deferred once as some of them expressed difficulty with the date proposed. “Now, it is being rescheduled,” a top bureaucrat in the Andhra government said. Kothapalem village in Visakhapatnam district is the preferred location, as reported by Express in June.
The INO project is a multi-institutional effort aimed at building a world-class underground laboratory. The objective is to conduct basic research on the elementary particle called neutrino. At present, 21 research institutes, universities and IITs from all over the country are involved in it. The INO is expected to galvanise interest in basic science research in the whole country.
Mooted in 2001 and originally slated for completion in 2012, the INO has faced a bumpy ride all along. To construct an underground laboratory as well as building of a large 50,000-tonne magnetic Iron Calorimeter (ICAL) detector to study naturally-produced neutrinos in the earth’s atmosphere, the facility needs to be built more than one km underground.
The first preferred location in Ooty was ruled out in 2009 due to its proximity to the elephant and tiger reserve and then Bodi West Hills in Theni district was selected for which environment clearance from the Union Environment Ministry was obtained.
However, the environment clearance was put in abeyance by the Southern Bench of the National Green Tribunal, which directed the INO to apply for fresh clearance since the site falls within 5 km from Mathikettan Shola National Park in Idukki district in Kerala and needs forest clearance from the National Wildlife Board.
Though INO project director Vivek M Datar applied for fresh clearance on June 1, the project is unlikely to materialise in Tamil Nadu due to intense local opposition. A senior scientist associated with the INO confessed to the Express that the prospects in Tamil Nadu looked bleak. “This is a laboratory that will serve the country for next 100 years.
We have already invested about `65-`70 crore in the project in Tamil Nadu. Our application to build hostels for students in Madurai, which should have been a routine process, is pending before the Department of Urban Development in Chennai for over three years. So, there is no progress,” the scientist said.
To a query, he said it would be too early to say with conviction that the project is moving to Andhra Pradesh. “Until things are formalised, we can’t comment.” Sundar Rajan of city-based NGO Poovulagin Nanbargan, who petitioned the NGT, said it was good for them to move to AP. “Theni is too ecologically sensitive for such a project.”