Why Indian Science Projects Must Plan for Cultural Conversations, Too

Officials inspecting the surroundings of Ambarappa Hill, which has been earmarked as the site of the INO. Credit: INO/TIFR

Officials inspecting the surroundings of Ambarappa Hill, which has been earmarked as the site of the INO. Credit: INO/TIFR

What should be the priority for science in India? Nature journal published answers from ten scientists in India it had asked this question to on May 13. One of the scientists was Prof. Naba Mondal, a physicist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and he said India has to “build big physics facilities”. Prof. Mondal is true in asserting also that there aren’t enough instrument builders in the country, and that when they come together, their difficulties are “compounded by widespread opposition to large-scale projects by political opportunists and activists on flimsy grounds”. However, what this perspective glazes over is the absence of a credible institution to ratify such projects and, more importantly, the fact that conversations between the government, the scientists and the people are not nearly as pluralistic as they need to be.

To illustrate, compare the $1.5-billion Thirty Meter Telescope set to come up on Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, and the Rs.1,500-crore India-based Neutrino Observatory, whose builders have earmarked a contested hill in Theni, Tamil Nadu, for a giant particle-detector to be situated. In both cases: 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; and 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 when the location was finalised and now, with construction set to begin.

“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 Nature. For the people around the hill under which the INO is to be constructed, it is the abode of the deity named Ambarappa Perumal. In both cases, the protests were triggered by anger over the perceived desecration of their land land but drew on a deeper sentiment of ‘enough is enough’ against serial abuses of the environment by the government

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, in Maui.

Obviously, it helps when those who are perceived to be desecrating 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 centre 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 managed make a lasting impression on public memory. In my conversations with some of the scientists – including Prof. Naba Mondal from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, and director of the INO collaboration – one question that came and comes up repeatedly according to them 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, Vaiko, the leader of the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party in Tamil Nadu, 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:

  1. 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, or rather will inevitably be, that the TNPCB’s go-ahead will do nothing to restore the INO’s legitimacy in the people’s eyes.
  2. 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 INO collaboration or the Department of Atomic Energy, 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.

There is 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. When I asked environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman if he thought there would ever be any space for a science experiment in India that would hollow out a hill, he replied, “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.”