Neutrino Observatory Project Threatens Mudumalai
February 2009: The myopia of Indian decision makers is once more on display thanks to a decision to sacrifice the ecological integrity of Mudumalai, one of India’s finest tiger habitats to construct the Neutrino Observatory Project. The Sigur Plateau lies in the buffer zone of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and is well connected to the Moyar Valley in the east, which in turn provides the only link between the Western and Eastern Ghats.
To its south, it is connected with the northern part of the Nilgiris. Along the southern and western hills of the Nilgiris, the connectivity extends to Mukurty National Park and beyond into Silent Valley and the Nilambur forests of Kerala. In the northwest and north, Mudumalai’s forests are connected to the Wyanad forests in Kerala and Bandipur-Nagarahole. The Moyar valley continues into Sathyamangalam, which in the south has a tenuous link with the forests of Coimbatore, which abut the Palakad and Mannarkad forest divisions. Mannarkad is connected to Silent Valley. In the east, the Sathyamangalam forests continue into the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Sanctuary. This landscape and the surrounding intact forests, around 10,000 sq. km., is the last finest habitat for large mammals such as gaur, elephant and tiger in the world.
The integrity of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve (NBR), of which the Sigur Plateau is a part, hinges entirely on this plateau. The Sigur Plateau provides the major connectivity that links the Protected Area (PA) Complex (Nagarahole Bandipur and Mudumalai National Parks) in the Western Ghats of the NBR to the PA complex (Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple Sanctuary, Sathyamangalam Sanctuary and Bannergatta National Park) in the Eastern Ghats of the NBR.
The Tamil Nadu Forest Department is planning to establish an enlarged tiger conservation unit (ca. 1,000 sq. km.) from Sathyamangalam forests (already 475 sq. km. has been notified as a wildlife sanctuary) to Mukurty National Park (78.46 sq. km.) covering the blackbuck-tiger habitat in the east at an altitude of 200 m. to Nilgiri tahr-tiger habitat in the west at around 2,500 m. The entire stretch is still, fortunately, well connected for species such as the sambar, elephant and tiger. If properly established, Mudumalai Tiger Reserve will be peerless in the country for its habitat, floral, faunal and ethnic (the indigenous Irula, Sholiga, Jen and Kadu Kurumba tribes) diversity. It can easily support a minimum population of 50 adult tigers along with various other endangered species such as the Nilgiri tahr Hemitragus hylocrius, four-horned antelope Tetracerus quadricornis, orange-finned mahseer or Tor moyarensis., mugger Crocodylus palustris, king cobra Ophiophagus hannah, Indian White-backed Vultures Gyps bengalensis and Great Hornbill Buceros bicornis. The larger landscape, including Mudumalai, can easily support a population of 250 adult tigers.
The Sigur plateau is under tremendous pressure from cattle grazing, collection of wood for fuel and other purposes, non-timber forest product (NTFP) collection and poaching. The primary cause for this has been the rapid and huge growth of human population that has been fuelled by the large-scale construction projects here. The latest in this string of threats and possibly the most dangerous of all, is the 920 crore rupees India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) project that has, unfortunately, already been approved by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
It will bring with it all the disturbances and pressures of such large construction projects including the real threat of more people settling down here.
Neutrinos are sub-atomic particles that scientists believe hold the key to understanding the origin of the universe and energy production in stars. More than 50 scientists from 15 universities and institutes are backing the project that they claim is vital to India’s scientific development. While Sanctuary has no comment on the merits of the project per se, the location in the Sigur plateau, just 1.4 km. from the boundary of the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve core area, is totally unacceptable as an alternative site could be easily found in a less ecologically fragile area. While the original functioning site in the Kolar gold fields was shut down due to what was then assumed to be a high cost of maintainence, it really pales into insignificance considering today’s project budget.
The observatory itself will be built 1,300 m. below the 2,207 m. Glenmorgan peak, in the heart of a forest that is home to elephants and tigers. It involves drilling a tunnel under the picturesque Glenmorgan ridge that is a potential site for the reintroduction of the Nilgiri tahr.
The EIA document itself underscores the threats to this area. In Section ‘3.5 Protected Areas and Wildlife Corridors’ it states, ‘These corridors are already highly threatened by various anthropogenic activities in the area’ and ‘High density of cattle and increasing hotel/tourist industry affect these corridors as resources of the area are over exploited.’
According to a study report prepared by Ajay A. Desai and N. Mohanraj for the WWF, more people are attracted to the area thanks to development and tourism and this project will exert additional pressure on Mudumalai. The construction could span five years and will involve, at the very least, 300 workers and assuming a family size of four, an influx of at least 1,200 people is estimated. In the past, the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB) has been unsuccessful in clearing settlers from its labour camps, a situation which is bound to repeat itself. It is also possible the INO project will gradually pave way for more projects in this landscape leading to further urbanisation of the area.
Continuing the trend of shoddy Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Reports, the original document was prepared in just three months. Predictably, the species inventory lists miss even such common species as Anogiessus latifolia and the muntjac. It does not consider the long-term impact on species and corridors. It also suggests that the 2.25 lakh m3 of rock and mud that will be excavated to make the tunnels and caverns will be dumped on land next to the dirt excavated during the Pykrara Ultimate Stage Hydro Electric Project (PUSHEP) of TNEB. It fails to mention that silting and high levels of pollution from this very same dumping site resulted in public protests by local villagers leading to the District Collector asking the TNEB to flush the streams in the surrounding area. It also sidesteps mentioning the actual size of the tunnel to underplay the damage. While the report admits to noise and dust pollution, it casually suggests that the crushing unit be located outside the PA without considering the impact of transporting the rocks in vehicles through the Mudumalai and Bandipur Tiger Reserves. The heavy traffic on the Mysore-Ooty highway that bisects the forest, is already a hinderance to animals and increased truck traffic will only aggravate the situation. The project falsely states that no forest land is required, but technically, the tunnel and research chamber itself are proposed inside the Reserved Forest area, which amounts to forest land use.
A follow up EIA and impact management plan prepared in four months by CARE EARTH has not been made public yet. One must question why a few environmental scientists are supporting the project? Is it the lure of huge funding for ‘conservation’ work that will be available from the INO project that is driving such support?
The Moyar river watershed is already suffering increased erosion and flooding. Increased biotic pressure in the Sigur plateau will result in further degradation. The dirt that will be washed into the Moyar river as a result of the INO project will silt the Bhavanisagar dam and also be a death blow to the orange-finned mahseer that is possibly endemic to this river. It will ultimately affect the Cauvery river as Sigur is part of its catchment. A new road and railway track are also proposed in this landscape. On top of all this, the Forests Rights Act and increased tourism pressures (the salubrious climate is also attracting more weekend homes) indicate that Mudumalai is in deep trouble. We do not have the luxury to bring in added pressures to an already over-exploited area.
Write to the MoEF and the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu stating the following facts
1. The site is within the proposed buffer zone of Mudumalai Tiger Reserve and lies just 1.4 km. from the tiger reserve’s boundary. The Sigur Plateau is a critical link between the Eastern and Western Ghats.
2. An alternative site can be selected where wildlife and watershed areas are not affected.
3. Both the EIA report and the INO project proponents have downplayed the impact the project will have on this ecologically sensitive area.
4. Vehicular disturbance and increase in human population due to influx of migrant workers will be substantial and these have not been addressed in a satisfactory manner.
With inputs from Ajay A. Desai and N. Mohanraj’s WWF Report and Dr. A.J.T. Johnsingh.
Dr. Kalaignar M. Karunanidhi,
Chief Minister’s Office,
Chennai – 600 009.
Paryavaran Bhavan, CGO Complex, Lodhi Road, New Delhi – 110 003.