Thursday, April 16, 2015

The protest brigades

Early in 1970's decade, I used to work in the fort area of Mumbai. There were a large number of commercial banks head offices in that area. Almost on every afternoon, during lunch hour, I would witness a common sight. A group of about 40 or 50 men, would be standing near entrance to one of the bank head offices with banners, placards and would be giving slogans damning the managements. The every day show used to be strikingly similar, except that it was held at different venues; different bank HO's. Once a friend told me that actually the protestors are all same people, because they are hired; they just go around from one bank to another. They are actually paid for the job by bank worker's unions. We would jokingly call these people as protest brigades.

Since last 10 or 20 years, a new and much more developed form of protest brigades has appeared in India. They no longer protest for bank employees, They now oppose new projects that are coming up using all kinds of means; PIL ( Public interest litigations) cases in courts, on line petitions, blockades. Many of them are funded from abroad. For example, take the case of atomic power station project at Kudankulam, on east coast of India. The project was initiated long back, when an Inter-Governmental Agreement was signed in 1988 by then Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, for the construction of two atomic reactors at this site.

Due to international political difficulties, the project was much delayed and construction work finally began only in September 2001. As the project neared completion, the protest brigades got into action. A fear was systematically created in the minds of nearby villagers for their safety, which resulted in intense protests by fishermen and other river folk against the power project. Even a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was also filed against the government’s civil nuclear programme at the Supreme Court.

The apex court took a long time to decide on the matter and only on May 6th 2013, in a landmark judgment, gave its green signal to the commissioning of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu. Dismissing a host of PILs challenging the Madras High Court’s earlier order in favour of the plant, the apex court termed the operationalisation of Kudankulam nuclear power plant as necessary for the country’s growth. It took another year for the first reactor at Kudankulan to start delivering its rated 1000 MW electrical power.

I had always thought that these so called bands of protest brigades, donning different names, but all mainly funded by some or other foreign based organizations, are only active in India, to try and block, whenever any new development project is thought off. The latest news from US has however proved that I am all in the wrong,

A question comes to mind as to what all these protests and PIL's achieve except for delaying the projects and increasing its cost overlays. One might give some weightage to the protestors point of view (if there is one!) in the Kudankulan case, because ever since the Fukushima disaster in Japan, many environmentalists have been questioning about over all long term impact of Nuclear power. But how does one justify protests against an astronomical telescope being set up on a remote mountain because the site offers ideal conditions for astronomical observations and that too in USA?

The highest point in the U.S. state of Hawaii; Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano located on the island of Hawaii. It stands tall at 13,803 ft (4,207 m) above sea level. Because of extremely favourable observing conditions, Mauna Kea's summit is considered as one of the best sites in the world for astronomical observations. The atmosphere here is extremely dry. Since the water vapor in the atmosphere absorbs radiation in submillimeter and infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum, Mauna Kea is an ideal spot for submillimeter and infrared astronomy. The cloud cover always remains below the summit and keeps the air above the summit free of atmospheric pollution, stable and without any turbulence. The night skies are very dark as it is far away from any city lights. All these factors make Mauna Kea an ideal place to set up astronomical observatories.

The University of California system, the California Institute of Technology and the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy with China, India and Japan are partnering to construct a 18-storey, $1.4 Billion, 30 meter diameter telescope on the summit that should help scientists see some 13 billion light years away for a glimpse into the early years of the universe. This telescope would be so powerful as to identify an object as small as a coin from a distance equivalent to 500 Km.

No way concerned about the scientific progress that can be achieved by this new telescope, the protest brigades, who have also roped in some celebrities, have got into action and have started their campaigns here too. The argument is that the telescope structure desecrates sacred land. If that is not enough, this is also supposed to be a conservation area.

An online petition has been launched to halt construction and has managed to collect about 30,000 signatures. The star of a popular TV serial in US, Game of Thrones; Jason Momoa and San Francisco based base ball team's pitcher Madison Bumgarner and few other known names have joined the protests. The organizers of protests are using social media as well are holding a worldwide sign waving with participants from Hawaii, Alaska, New York City, Las Vegas, Kentucky, Arizona, Tahiti and Tonga. There is direct action too. Protestors have been camped out on the top of the mountain creating a human blockades for two weeks and over 30 people had been arrested.

Funny part is that Mauna Kea summit already has number of telescopes built within that conservation zone. In the early 1970s, a 2.2 meter diameter telescope built by University of Hawaii, UH 88 came up here. It was the seventh largest optical/infrared telescope in the world at that time. Today, there are 13 observation facilities at Mauna Kea Science Reserve, funded by as many as 11 countries. The largest facility, commissioned in 1999, has been built by Japan and is known as the Subaru Telescope, considered as one of the world’s biggest, it has a single main mirror that measures 8.2 meters in diameter. The Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce has been encouraging astronomical development of Mauna Kea ever since early 1960s.

This week, the governor of Hawaii temporarily halted construction on the telescope, saying it was "a time out" and a chance for both sides to talk. I find the entire endeavour of protests, bordering on being ridiculous. When there are already 12 other telescopes functioning on site, developing another plot of about five acres of land for the Thirty-Meter Telescope is not going to make any major difference. It seems that Mauna Kea 30 meter telescope project is going in the Kudankulam nuclear power plant way, which is indeed bad news for the science.

15th April 2015

No comments:

Post a Comment