Hundreds of protesters took to the streets against the construction of the observatory. The mountain’s surroundings that it would occupy were held sacred by the local population. Even after the project had cleared a drawn-out environmental review that ended with a go-ahead from the government, the people expressed their disapproval – first at the ground-breaking ceremony and now, with construction set to begin.
This is the story of the $1.5-billion Thirty Meter Telescope set to come up on Mauna Kea, in Hawaii. This is also the story of the India-based Neutrino Observatory, whose builders have earmarked a contested hill in Theni, Tamil Nadu, for the Rs.1,500-crore lab. Although neither story has concluded and even now awaits legal arbitration, one project has acquired an air of frustration while the other sports respectful obduracy.
“To Native Hawaiians, Mauna Kea represents the place where the earth mother and the sky father met, giving birth to the Hawaiian Islands,” says Dane Maxwell, a cultural-resource specialist in Maui, in this Nature article. For the people around the hill under which the INO is to be constructed, it is the abode of the deity named Ambarappa Perumal. However, in both cases, only the cue and not the raison d’etre is a violation of cultural sensibilities – the latter is an “enough is enough” attitude that wants to end serial abuses of the environment.
But where the two stories deviate significantly is in the nature of dialogue. On April 23, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs organized a meeting for both parties – locals and the builders – to attempt to reach a temporary solution (A permanent alternative is distant because the locals are also insistent that something must be done about the other telescopes already up on Mauna Kea). Moreover, the American government invited an expert in the local culture – Maxwell – to advise its construction of a solar observatory, also in Maui.
Obviously it helps when those who want to supposedly desecrate the land are able to speak the language of those who revere it. This kind of conversation is lacking in India, where, despite greater cultural diversity, there is more antagonism between the government and the people than deference. In fact, with a government at the center that is all but dismissive of environmental concerns, a bias has been forming outside the demesne of debates that one side must be ready to not get what it wants – like it always has.
During the environmental review for the project, in fact, scientists from the INO collaboration held discussions in the villages surrounding Ambarappar Hill in an effort to allay locals’ fears. As it happens, scientific facts have seldom been long-lived in India. In my conversations with some of the scientists – including the spokesperson Prof. Naba K. Mondal from TIFR, Mumbai – I’ve been told one question that came and comes up repeatedly is if the observatory will release harmful radiation into the soil and air. The answer has always been the same (“No”) but the questions don’t go away – often helped along by misguided media reports as well.
On March 26, the political head of a regional party named Vaiko, a known rabble-rouser, filed a petition with the Madras High Court to stay the INO’s construction. It was granted with the condition that if construction is to begin, the project will have to be cleared by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board – the state-level counterpart of a national body that has already issued a clearance. But chief among consequences are two:
- Most – if not all – people have a dreadful impression of government approvals and clearances. Nuclear power plants often have no trouble acquiring land in the country while tribal populaces are frequently evicted from their properties with little to no recompense. The result is, rather will inevitably be, that the TNPCB’s go-ahead will do nothing to restore the INO’s legitimacy in the people’s eyes.
- Even if they’re dodgy at best, the clearances are still only environmental clearances. A month after Vaiko’s petition mentioning cultural concerns was admitted by the High Court, there have been no institutional efforts from either the IMSc or the central government, which is funding the project, to address the villagers on a cultural footing. In Hawaii, on the other hand, the work of people like Dane Maxwell is expected to break the stalemate.
I have little doubt, if at all, that the TNPCB will also come ahead waving a green flag for the INO, but there seems no way for the INO collaboration to emerge out of this mess looking like the winner* – which could be a real shame for scientific experiments in general in the country. I’d written to environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman, who had ridiculed the builder’s efforts to forge ahead with the project in a note on Facebook at the time of Vaiko’s petition, to ask for his thoughts on whether there was any space for a science experiment in India that would hollow out a hill.
His reply was equally derisive and apt.
I personally think that there is no space. But I think that such thoughts have to be debated in public fora with opposing or differing viewpoints. There are, as you say, many grey areas and even black-and-white areas that are being relegated to the sidelines. Where is the room for this debate? If there is any debate, it is because of those who oppose. Left to themselves, the whitecoats would like to chug along with deathly silence on all sides, and with debates only among their own kind. What would a debate between a whitecoat and an adivasi elder look like?
I think the neutrino [observatory] will get built. You should not have any fears on that count. I’d rather it doesn’t. But I think it would be unfortunate if it does without so much as an honest debate where each side is prepared to live with a scenario where what they want may not be the outcome.
(*Also in terms of losing out on primacy against China’s new neutrino detector, construction on which has already begun.)