To begin with, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) just recently came down heavily on SRI SRI Ravishankar'a Art of Living Foundation (AoL) which is responsible for 'causing damage and environmental degradation' to the Yamuna floodplains due to its three-day World Culture Festival held in March 2016. The tribunal, however, refrained from imposing any further environment compesation on AoL and said the amount of Rs 5 crore which was submitted by it earlier would be used for the restoration of the floodplains. Further, it refused to decide whether AoL was authorised to hold the festival on the Yamuna flood plains or not, saying it is beyond jurisdiction.
While reacting with dismay to the verdict, the AoL expressed its disappointment and claimed it had complied with all environment norms and its submissions before the tribunal were not considered. The AoL was confident that they would get justice from the Supreme Court. The AoL said in a statement that, 'We will appeal to the Supreme Court. We are confident that we will get justice before the Supreme Court.'
To put things in perspective, the NGT order read as 'We hold and declare that Respondent No. 3 (AoL) is responsible for causing damage and environmental degradation of the flood plain of river Yamuna limited to the area that was awarded to it by Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and the State of Uttar Pradesh, in terms of the report of the High Powered Committee'. No doubt, this is a direct rap on AoL for causing damage and environmental degradation of the area of the flood plain of river Yamuna that was awarded to it by the DDA and the State of Uttar Pradesh! It must be taken with full seriousness!
It is noteworthy that earlier this year in 2017, an NGT-appointed expert Committee had noted that the flood plains was 'adversely impacted' by the cultural event and the rehabilitation of it would cost Rs 42.02 crore and may take up to ten years. The judgment stated that, 'We do not find any merit in the objections raised by Respondent No 3 in relation to the reports of the High Powered Committee.' What NGT has said has to be respected!
Truth be told, in its 98-page order, the Bench headed by NGT Chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar stated that, 'It needs to be noticed with some emphasis that the entire controversy in the present case revolves around the grant of permission by Delhi Development Authority.' The Bench, also comprising Justice Jawad Rahim and expert member BS Sajwan stated that the floodplain ad the entire land in question is the property of the DDA and Uttar Pradesh and it was the 'prime responsibility' of its upkeep fell upon the DDA.
Going forward, the judgment noted that the WCF had caused 'serious pollution on the floodplain of the river' as early 35 lakh people were gathered on the site. The judgment noted with concern that, 'The floodplains are not and cannot be equated to waste lands. They should not be treated as lands lying fallow and utilized in the manner which is unacceptable and would have adverse impacts. It is the duty of the statutory authority, Government and the people at large to protect and preserve the flood plains or river Yamuna.' Very rightly said!
To be sure, the judgment of NGT also made it clear that, 'The riverbed and the floodplains should be protected and put to such use within the ambit of regulated activities which would not have any adverse effects...The utilization of the flood plain in a manner which would challenge the very basic characteristics of the flood plain would be impermissible. It is not an area that can be permitted for activities and particularly by making constructios of temporary or semi-permanent nature on the flood plain itself.' All Indians must respect what the NGT has said so categorically. There is a lot of merit in what NGT has said with utmost clarity!
Truly speaking, the NGT, however, did not impose any additional costs on AoL or the DDA. The NGT order stated that, 'We are of the considered view that the DDA has failed to exercise its statutory duty in consonance with the environmental laws in force. As evident, it is the duty of the DDA to maintain the natural features and ecology of the flood plain which they have failed to do, in the facts and circumstances of the present case.' Rightly said!
Not stopping here, it also added that, 'We would have imposed environmental compensation upon DDA as well but keeping in mind that it has already planned construction of bio-diversity park and improvement of flood plains from its funds, we do not impose any further environmental compensation upon DDA.' The Green Tribunal held AoL squarely repsonsible for 'restoration and restitution of the flood plain limited to portion that was allotted' to it for the festival 'in the original condition in which it was allotted to it prior to the event.' The Bench tasked the DDA with the onerous responsibility of assessing the quantum of damage caused to the flood plain and costs of restoration in line with the reports of the expert committee.
Further, it must be reiterated that the Green Tribunal also noted that the sum of Rs 5 crore deposited by AoI, with the DDA shall be utilised for restitution/restoration and other necessary works for the flood plains and under the supervision of the expert committee. The NGT order also ruled that, 'In the event, the expenditure for that purpose on the portion of the land forming part of Phase-II of the project of DDA is found to be in excess of Rs5,00,000,000/- (Rupees Five Crores), the DDA would be at liberty to recover the said amount and Respondent No. 3 shall be liable to pay the said amount on demand. If finally the expenditure to be incurred on that amount is less than Rs 5 crore, the remaining amount would be refunded by DDA to Respondent No. 3.'
All said and done, what the NGT carries a lot of weightage. It must be adhered to in totality. We all have to act collectively if we want to save our environment from becoming more and more polluted especially our sacred rivers like Yamuna and Ganga! There can be no denying or disputing this!