A 'joke' by the NGT!

Print edition : October 13, 2017

An earthmover levels the surface for traffic movement at the site of the World Culture Festival on the floodplains of the Yamuna on March 9, 2016. Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP

THE Art of Living Foundation organised a cultural event on the Yamuna floodplains in March last year that prompted the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to impose a penalty on it for causing irrevocable damage to the floodplains. Not only has Sri Sri Ravi Shankar refused to pay the fine, he has mocked the NGT for having the “audacity” to penalise him. He scoffed at the NGT in a Facebook post after he was fined in April 2017. “If at all a fine has to be levied it should be levied on the Central and State governments and the NGT itself for giving the permission. If the Yamuna was so fertile, fragile and pure, they should have stopped the World Culture Festival at the very beginning,” he wrote. He added that if they had any objection, they could have stopped the event in the beginning because the application was pending with the NGT for two months. “It defies all principles of natural justice that you give permission and then slap a fine for not flouting any rules! This is like giving a challan to someone on a green signal!” he wrote.

He described the entire exercise by the NGT as a “joke” and said: “A historic programme deserving of applause and appreciation is unjustly projected as a crime! Witnessed by 1.8 billion people all over the world and a massive turnout on the ground, a floating stage of 7 acres without any foundation (a marvel in itself), the event polluted neither air, water nor land.”

Organising a mega three-day event of such huge proportions on the floodplains of a river gasping for breath was in itself illogical; also, the rules prohibit any construction on the floodplains, permanent or otherwise.

None of that mattered because in this case, apart from Central agencies, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Delhi also bent over backwards to help organise the event.

The violation of environmental laws came to the fore only after a few non-governmental organisations (NGOs) approached the NGT to stop the event. The plea lay idle for weeks and by the time the tribunal took note it was already too late, as the NGT itself noted in its order in March last year. The NGT said it could not stop the event as it had become a “fait accompli”. However, it imposed a fine of Rs.5 crore on the foundation as environmental compensation and said a detailed study would finally fix the quantum to be paid for the damage caused to the river.

Despite a stern order, the foundation deposited only Rs.25 lakh then and asked for time to pay the rest, which it subsequently did with great reluctance.

However, a detailed study by an expert committee of the NGT fixed the quantum of damage at Rs.42 crore: Rs.28.73 crore for physical rehabilitation of the river plains and Rs.13.29 crore for biological rehabilitation. The expert committee, which submitted a 47-page report, said the event had not just damaged the flood plains but had ruined it.

“The ground is now totally levelled, compacted and hardened and is totally devoid of water bodies, or depressions, and almost completely devoid of any vegetation,” it said in the report, adding that the actual [rehabilitation] cost could be much more and that it would take at least 10 years to restore the floodplains. The event had caused ecological destruction of varying magnitude of approximately 300 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of the plains on the western side and about 120 acres on the eastern side, according to the report.

However, the foundation has not only refused to pay the fine but it has even denied that any fine has been levied. “There is no question of any fine to be paid by The Art of Living as no fine whatsoever has been imposed by NGT on the Art of Living till date. Please note that no fine was imposed in March 2016 or in April 2017. The issue of whether or not there has been any environmental damage is still being heard by the NGT. We have submitted overwhelming scientific evidence with the NGT to conclusively establish that no damage whatsoever has been caused,” said Gautam Vig, director, Art of Living.

He told Frontline that Google Earth images from 10 years ago and a scientific study by its own expert committee, the contents of which are available on the foundation’s website, conclusively prove that the event had caused no environmental damage to the river. “Whatever so-called damage is being attributed to the Art of Living has always been the feature of that part of the river plain,” he said.

Vimlendu Jha, executive director of Swechha, an NGO that had petitioned the NGT to stop the event, said: “This is a classic example of how every single agency, which should have simply done its work in order to implement laws, failed to do its duty just because Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has political muscle. It speaks volumes about the manner in which governments function in this country.”

Purnima S. Tripathi