Reimagining India’s Role in the Thirty Meter Telescope Project

Nickled and Dimed A Jindal School of International Affairs Blog Posted on August 20, 2015   by Editor

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Kalyani Unkule talks about India’s participation in the controversial TMT Project in Hawaii which is facing protests on cultural and environmental grounds and proposes a rethink in light of India’s own rich culture of supporting heritage over moneyed development.

Scientific research is becoming increasingly internationally collaborative in nature and several of the Government of India’s policy initiatives have sought to grasp resulting opportunities. According to the Department of Science and Technology’s Annual Report 2014-15, “DST is able to strategically leverage ‘international collaborative advantage’ by building chosen international alliances and partnerships with selected countries that can have perceptible yields”. The Thirty Meter Telescope or TMT project in Hawaii is a prime recent example of such a collaboration with players such as American and Canadian Universities, the governments of China and Japan, Private funders, and the Department of Science and Technology in India.

The key scientific objectives of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project would be to study the origins of galaxies distant in space and time, to better understand formation of stars and planets and to investigate the existence of extra terrestrial life forms. The contribution committed by the Government of India stands approximately at INR 1300 crores with a cash component of 30 per cent. The in-kind contribution is envisaged in the form of sensors, software, components and facilities. This satisfies two major items in the overall vision articulated by the Department of Science and Technology, namely, to “accelerate institutional and human capacity building through international exposure and linkages” and “connect Indian research with global efforts in frontier areas and in addressing global challenges”.

The Maunakea mountain on one of the Hawaiian islands was chosen as the site for setting up the telescope for being uniquely situated in terms of the clarity it affords for optimal functioning of the telescope. It is hard to say whether anyone anticipated at the time that Maunakea and TMT would emerge as a landmark, a polarizing chapter in the longstanding tussle over advancement of science on the one hand and the protection of cultural rights and environmental conservation on the other.

Hawaiian folklore extols this volcanic mountain as the firstborn (of the earth mother Papa and the sky father Wakea) and its peak is widely regarded as the navel of the islands in popular imagination. Hence, resistance to the TMT on cultural and legal grounds has drawn considerable support among the local community. In a letter to the Governor of the State of Hawaii, earlier this year, activists say: “In spite of our court appeals, culminating years of legal effort on our part, bulldozers and other heavy equipment now assemble on the mountaintop to begin construction of this massive, eighteen storey high facility—in shameful disrespect for Hawaii’s legal process, host culture and all law-abiding citizens of Hawaii. Is it any wonder that Hawaiians and community members, out of respect for the legal process and in defense of their oldest and deepest traditions—have gathered in protest on the mountain?” Desecration of burial sites has been a thorny issue in Hawaii and opponents have also alleged its occurrence in this case. While the scientific community has not painted a particularly alarming picture of potential harm the TMT project might cause to Hawaii’s many endangered species of flora and fauna, a rising tide of environmental consciousness among the wider public means that the TMT is viewed with suspicion regardless.

Such is the vigour of the protests that the Board of Land and Natural Resources recently voted to adopt emergency measures restricting public access to Maunakea hoping to limit confrontation. The NGO Environment Hawaii reports that one protestor present at the hearing before the board responded to this decision by simply saying: “I’ll see you on the mountain”.

There are other voices that question the authenticity of these cultural beliefs branding them instead as superstition and drawing attention to Hawaii’s more recent history of acquiescence to Western technology and integration with the American political system and way of life. In the words of one blogger: “Today, we have a new generation of Hawaiians who insist on resurrecting the old gods and superstitious beliefs that were used by the elites of Hawaiian society to oppress and subjugate the common people. I believe our ancestors welcomed change and an end to the superstitious beliefs.”

While both votaries and opponents of the TMT dig in their heels, there are questions that India must ask itself as party and potential beneficiary. Is there room to balance environmental concerns and sociocultural rights of communities against scientific exploration in our imagination of policy? The short answer is that while this seems to clearly be necessary to secure longer term public welfare, a more conscious effort needs to be made to articulate it in policy formulation. Secondly, how much should we tangibly stand to gain through participation in a certain project to justify the costs imposed on communities – distant or closer home? Setting priorities is the advisable course of action both in terms of identifying the most desirable direction for different kinds of scientific breakthrough sought and the ancillary goals such as joint initiatives with other leading powers with the strategic implications thereof. Furthermore, does our obligation to future generations stop at augmenting reserves of knowledge through fresh discovery? A more balanced understanding of inter-generational justice would dictate that we are equally responsible for connecting them with our ancestors by preserving and transferring their wisdom.

As an aspiring global actor we are surely obligated to set standards and uniformly apply them whether at home or abroad. In the wake of protests, the TMT is gaining in visibility and profile across the world and this makes the reputation that India stands to gain or expend in this process a worthy consideration. At home we often sacrifice pragmatism at the altar of something held sacred by a subsection of our pluralistic society. India is not (yet) the country that lets growth and development run roughshod over mnemonic symbols held dear. And in recent history, we have hardly ever let our own governments set something up in our backyards without raising a hue and cry. India’s aspiration to be at the cutting edge of technological and scientific advancement is perfectly legitimate. But when it comes to advocating that this be achieved whilst minimizing damage to environmental and cultural heritage and proposing approaches based on introspection and self-awareness, India’s should be the strongest voice in the room.


Kalyani Unkule is an Assistant Professor at the Jindal Global Law School and Assistant Dean, International Collaborations