Between the lines: NGT didn

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Between the lines: NGT didn't stop #AOL event, but there's more to its order

Ruling on allowing the Art of Living Foundation to hold its World Cultural Event on the Yamuna floodplain, the National Green Tribunal claimed it was only concerned with the ecological, environmental and biodiversity damage that could be caused by the event.

Then it greenlit the jamboree.

Does this mean the event won't damage the environment? Far from it. In fact, as the NGT itself noted the floodplain has been drastically tampered with and its vegetation all but destroyed, which has harmed ecological, environmental and aquatic life.

Read- Zenspeak: Sri Sri and the art of brainwashing

Then why did it allow the event to go ahead and only asked the Art of Living Foundation, run by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, to pay compensation of Rs 5 crore?

Why didn't NGT stop the event?

"Delay and laches on the part of the applicant" in approaching the NGT prevented it from granting a prohibitory order against the event or asking for "removal of construction and restoration of the area".

Substantial construction work on the "floodplain and allied areas" had already been completed by the time the petition was filed.

Was this really the case?

Manoj Mishra, the founder of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan and the petitioner in the matter, isn't convinced. "We had petitioned the NGT well before the DDA gave permission for the construction." The petition was filed on 8 February.

"And before we approached the NGT, we had sent many letters to Art of Living Foundation and Delhi's lieutenant governor," Mishra said. "What more can a citizen do?"

#AOLverdict: I'm sure the Rs 5 crore amount would be increased manifold later, says Manoj Mishra

Mishra's counsel Sanjay Parikh added, "Major construction activities took place starting 8 February. The Principal Committee also observed the damage caused on the floodplain as well. I do not understand where the delay aspect comes in." This panel was sent by the NGT on 19 February to asses the damage at the site.

Is NGT's verdict entirely disappointing?

There are a few positive takeaways in the ruling.

The NGT pulled up the Delhi Development Authority for giving "a vague permission" for the event. Finding that DDA officials had not even visited the site before giving permission or during construction, the NGT fined it Rs 5 lakh.

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More important, it directed the DDA not to "issue any such permission" in the future without consulting the tribunal.

"DDA is not the right authority to take up the issue of floodplains or the river -- the judgment gave a clear indication of this by levying a fine on the DDA," said Mishra. "This is a violation of public trust. The DDA has been fined the most since it overreached its own authority."

Another agency that was fined is the Delhi Pollution Control Committee. The DPCC was told to pay Rs one lakh for "not acknowledging AOL Foundation's request for permission" and considering the water and sewage treatment requirements for the programme.

The NGT observed that since the AOL Foundation did seek permission for the event, the blame for not fulfilling their public duty rests with the police, the fire department, and the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, which is responsible for conservation of the river.

The foundation though was pulled up for providing "incomplete and vague information without adequate data or supporting documents for construction of roads, pontoon bridges, parking and a huge stage".

The authorities didn't have any answer throughout the NGT hearing today: Vimledu Jha, Swechha

"The bench observed that there wasn't enough clarity in permission given to us with respect to the scale of the event. This is a matter of concern for us as well," the foundation's lawyer Saraswati Akshama Nath told Catch.

The tribunal also dismissed the environment ministry's contention that the event didn't require environmental clearance.

"The authorities didn't have any answer throughout the hearing today. They were cornered about not fulfilling their respective duties," said Vimledu Jha, the founder of the NGO Swechha.

Swechha's Change.org petition against the programme has garnered over 21,000 signatures, something the NGT was informed of today.

But what about the ecological damage?

"We are happy with the decision of the court to allow the event to be held," said Saraswati. "But we stand by our stand that we did not cause any environmental damage."

The NGT, of course, has held otherwise. That's why it has fined Saraswati's client Rs 5 crore.

The AOL Foundation has been directed to deposit the amount before the programme begins on 11 March. The money would be adjusted in the final compensation to be levied for ecological restoration work at the site.

Read more: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has sentenced the Yamuna to death, says Vimlendu Jha

The Principal Committee constituted last month will asses the work needed for "restoration, restitution and rejuvenation within four weeks from today" and estimate the money required for it.

The tribunal also set up a committee comprising representatives from the environment ministry, the DPCC and the Central Pollution Control Board to "inspect the site of the event and issue directions regarding the use of water and disposal of sewage".

Mishra, the petitioner, is mostly content with the NGT's verdict. "Whatever it is, we have to respect the court's judgment. And I'm sure the Rs 5 crore is just the initial amount which would be increased manifold later on," he said.

"We are not going to take the matter forward to any other court," he added. "It is a victory for us in many ways."

Edited by Mehraj D. Lone

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Vishakh Unnikrishnan

Vishakh Unnikrishnan @sparksofvishdom