Red flagged: NGT ignored reports citing damage the AOL event would cause

Arya Sharma/ Catch news

Red flagged: NGT ignored reports citing damage the AOL event would cause

Yamuna, a river both sacred and life-giving to millions, has come under a renewed assault. Art of Living's mega event on its eco-sensitive floodplains has caused widespread concern.

But what it has also also exposed is how Art of Living was treated with kid gloves by everyone -- the state government, the central government, pollution control bodies and even the National Green Tribunal.

To understand how, Catch spoke to Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator at the South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

Read- Saffron trumps green: How 'AOL vs environment' debate turned communal

Thakkar says that the petition was not filed too late, as the NGT has claimed, and that in fact the Tribunal had many opportunities to stop the event, but failed to do so.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Union minister Venkaiah Naidu said the event is being opposed as it is "Hindu". The VHP has issued a similar statement. What do you have to say about such polarisation?

See, the issue is very clear. The issue is (a) environmental degradation because of a specific activity, (b) violation of the law of the land, (c) violation of the National Green Tribunal order of January 2015 and lack of due diligence by the concerned agencies.

All of this has come out very clearly in the NGT order. So, by trying to polarise, these agencies are actually disrespecting the law of the land.

The NGT in its order said it cannot stop the event because the petitioners approached it too late. Would you agree?

I don't agree with that. While the Delhi Development Authority issued its permission for the event on 15 December, its entire correspondence with Art of Living was not in the public domain. But this is not a private matter as far as the use of the floodplain is concerned; it is a public issue. But how would the petitioners have known what is going on? This is something the NGT did not look at.

Polarising the event is actually a disrespect to the law of the land: Himanshu Thakkar

Mr Manoj Misra himself first came to know about the event in December, when farmers told him that something related to Sri Sri was happening. Then he saw the event's website and on 11 December immediately wrote to the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi, who is the chairman of the DDA, stating why a permission would be illegal, and in violation of the NGT's earlier order.

The DDA nevertheless issued the clearance letter four days later, on the 15th.

Should the case have been filed then?

See the actual work on the ground started only in January. And work that was noticeable happened only in February. Till then, Mr Misra kept writing to various agencies, as did many of us. The NGT case was filed on 8 February after nothing happened and the work started becoming visible.

Should the NGT have acted earlier?

On 14 February the NGT asked Prof Gosain of IIT to go to the site and file a report in a day. He submitted a report saying this is not an environmentally benign activity, that it will have huge implications and that this will be in clear violation of the NGT order. That report itself gave cause for the NGT to take action.

Also read: Isn't it odd? Even Kejriwal kept quiet on Art of Living damage

But the NGT again asked for a separate report from the technical committee chaired by Union Water Resources Secretary Shashi,.// Shekhar. That committee again gave its report within a week on 22 February. If the NGT had taken action on that day it would still not have been fait accompli.

So, it is not correct at all on the part of the NGT to blame the petitioners because the NGT is also guilty of not taking action in time.

All three reports had said [the same thing]. If the NGT had taken timely action, they could have stayed the activity.

Does the fait accompli argument -- that the event could not be stopped because most of the work had already been completed -- really hold?

The fait accompli argument can be important if it is some developmental activity or if the activity has a public purpose. But this is a private activity. It is not developmental, nor is it a public purpose one at all. The fait accompli argument cannot be used in this, it should not have been used by the NGT. So I disagree with the NGT saying you've come so late.

Both the water resources and environment ministries said that AOL didn't need their approvals. Is this a problem with the law itself, or its implementation?

It's both actually. See, the NGT has clearly said in its order, that any activity which affects more than 50 hectares of land comes under a specific clause, Clause 8, of the EIA notification. And that MoEF failed to take action based on that. So it is partly an implementation problem.

The DDA issued the clearance despite knowing that it was in violation of the NGT's earlier order

It is also a problem of policy, because any activity that affects the river or any component of the river should invite a clearance and impact assessment from the ministry. But this is not the situation today.

In a notification on 31 July 2014, the environment ministry transferred all the issues related to pollution of rivers, like the Yamuna, to the water resources ministry. It's unfortunate that both the agencies have failed to do their duty.

Many AOL sympathisers are pointing towards Batla House and Akshardham, at how close they are to the Yamuna and questioning if AOL is being targeted.

See the point is that any activity affecting the floodplain should be stopped. But if somebody else is doing a wrong it doesn't give you the right to repeat that wrong. Particularly in light of the 13 June 2015 order of NGT, that states explicitly that there cannot be any activity that affects the environment or ecology in the 25-year floodplain.

This activity was coming up in such a big and blatant way that it definitely invited immediate action. This doesn't mean that the other wrongs should not be questioned.

Edited by Anna Verghese

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Nihar Gokhale

Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale