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No clearance from villagers for Neutrino project

The recent granting of environmental clearance by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has sharpened the divide between villagers of Pottipuram, activists and scientists, with local hostility to the project strengthening

As dusk falls in Chinna Pottipuram village and people return home after grazing cattle, elderly women in the village assemble at the oor manthai (a gathering place) and begin prayers invoking Ambarappar, the eponymous deity of the Ambarappar Hill in Theni district, where the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) is proposed to be set up. The prayer, which has now become a daily routine in the village, continues until late in the night and ends in a fervent appeal to Ambarappar to stop the INO project. The ritual is an indication of the near unanimous opposition faced by the project in the villages of Pottipuram panchayat, closely located to the project site.

The project is back in focus, with the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change granting fresh environmental clearance (EC) last month, rekindling opposition from the local people, activists and politicians.

A visit to the area showed that the EC has only increased the locals’ hostility towards the project. “People of my generation are not going to live for long. However, we have the responsibility to protect this village so that the younger generation can sustain their lives here. We will not even allow a single vehicle to enter the village for the project,” says 73-year-old P. Muthilikamu, the headman of T. Pudukottai, the village located closest to the project site, 2 km away.

Mistrust continues to rule the minds of the villagers, with many of them continuing to be unaware of why the present site has been selected for the project — the scientific requirement of tunnelling a high-enough mountain, seismic compatibility of the area, and the near absence of forests that may need to be cleared.

Fresh in their minds

In Pottipuram panchayat, which includes T. Pudukottai, Chinna Pottipuram, T. Ramakrishnapuram, Kuppanasaripatti and Thimminaickenpatti villages, the INO project dominates nearly every discussion. About half of the over 9,000 people in the panchayat are agricultural labourers. A majority of the households has large numbers of cattle, which graze mostly in the Ambarappar hill and adjacent areas.

A stream at the base of the hill runs close to the roughly 27 hectares of poramboke land that is now fenced off for the project, and feeds at least two tanks nearby when it rains. Though an irrigation canal extended to the area in recent years runs half-a-kilometre away from the project site, villagers say that they were yet to see water in it.

The villagers see a spiritual significance to the Ambarappar hill, near the base of which is the small thatched-roof Ambarappar Swami shrine. The foremost fear of the local people seems to be the prospect that the INO will alienate them from the hill that has been an integral part of their lives. “There is no spot on the hill that I have not set foot on. Our children, including girls, go even in the evenings to the hill to graze cattle or pick firewood. All that will stop as the neutrino people will gradually take control of the area,” says Mr. Muthilikamu.

The INO team has assured them that there will be no restriction of movement outside the fenced area and paramilitary forces will not be deployed, but they are not convinced.

Despite the claims of the team that extensive outreach programmes were done around 2010 after finalising Pottipuram as the location, a number of people The Hindu met in these villages claim no one has explained the project to them, which was also evident from the bizarre fears they expressed, besides apprehensions on possible environmental impact and loss of livelihood.

For instance, P. Periyaraj of T. Pudukottai says: “They are going to keep a giant magnet [the 50 kilo tonne Iron Calorimeter detector] inside the mountain. People say that it will attract all the iron tools from our houses.”

The uploading of a comprehensive list of frequently asked questions on the INO website, both in Tamil and English, has not helped much. The public dissemination meeting organised in the 2010 was reportedly attended only by the people of T. Ramakrishnapuram, who claim it was dominated by assurances of developmental prospects for the villages instead of explanation of the project.

The project is also fiercely questioned by activists on various fronts.