The fight of environmentalists to protect the Yamuna floodplains from encroachments and unauthorised constructions received a major setback on Wednesday when the National Green Tribunal allowed the Art of Living Foundation to go ahead with its mega cultural event, World Cultural Festival, on the banks of the river. Activists had claimed that the preparations for the three-day event has caused damage to the environment, ecology, biodiversity and aquatic life of the river.
The Tribunal also imposed an interim Rs.5 crore “Environmental Compensation” fine on the Foundation and Rs.5 lakh and Rs.1 lakh penalty on Delhi Development Authority and Delhi Pollution Control Committee for allowing the event on the floodplain despite its directions.
The compensation amount of Rs.5 crore would have to be paid by the Foundation prior to the commencement of the event, and the NGT said it would be adjusted towards the final compensation which would be determined on the basis of report that would be submitted by the Principal Committee, constituted by NGT in the main Yamuna matter, within four weeks.
The panel would look into the aspects of “restoration, restitution and rejuvenation of the flood plains to its original status. It will also state the approximate cost that would have to be incurred for such restoration and restitution.” The Tribunal also directed that the entire area in question be developed into biodiversity park. “The cost thereof shall be paid by the Foundation and DDA in the proportion as would be directed by the Tribunal finally,” it said
The four-member bench of NGT, chaired by Justice Swatanter Kumar, delivered the judgment within hours of the Delhi Government counsel submitting that the Central Public Works Department had found the huge stage erected at the site unsafe for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The counsel also submitted that the CPWD has suggested that a separate stage be set up for the Prime Minister and other dignitaries. Incidentally, earlier President Pranab Mukherjee had opted out of the event in the wake of the controversy regarding its impact on the fragile environment of the area.
The counsel for Art of Living submitted during the course of the hearing that the construction of the new small stage with a cabin for seating 16 dignitaries including Modi and president of European Parliament was being undertaken not because of any safety aspect but to provide them a view from a vantage point. The counsel also submitted that the presence of the dignitaries on the giant stage would have created a security problem as over 35,000 artists are scheduled to participate during the event, that begins on March 11.
Once it became known that the Prime Minister would be attending the event, a sense of despondency set in among many of the environmentalists as a cancellation of the mega cultural festival became a distant possibility.
During the course of the arguments, Justice Kumar lamented that the government agencies did not act in accordance with the powers vested with them and furnished vague replies. “This is one of those cases where we are finding it very difficult to get to the truth. But we have to decide, and we will decide.”
The decision was along expected lines. The tribunal, which has been hearing the case for nearly a month now, held that applicants responsible for the delay in bringing the case before it and for its inability to stop the event at this stage. “For the reason of delay and laches on the part of the applicant in approaching the Tribunal and for the reason of fait accompli capable of restoration and restitution, we are unable to grant the prayer of prohibitory order and a mandatory direction for removal of construction and restoration of the area in question to the applicant at this stage.”
Basing its judgment on the arguments, records produced as also three reports submitted by the Principal Committee, constituted by NGT in the main Yamuna matter, expert A.K. Gosain and the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the Tribunal said experts were of the view that the “flood plains have been drastically tampered” and the “natural flow of the river, reeds, grasses, natural vegetation on the river bed” had been destroyed. It said the preparations have “further disturbed the aquatic life of the river and destroyed water bodies and wet lands on the flood plains, which were in existence.”
Furthermore, it said, “they [organisers] have constructed ramps, roads, compaction of earth, pontoon bridges and other semi-permanent or temporary structures etc. even without the permission of the concerned authorities including Ministry of Water Resources.”
Drawing an adverse inference, the Tribunal said it had expected the Foundation to disclose its entire project besides holding of the cultural activity to all the concerned authorities.
The Tribunal also observed some material deficiencies or discrepancies have been pointed out by the Delhi Police in its letter dated March 1 and by the Public Works Department on March 8. It therefore directed the event organisers to comply with the safety, construction stability and other requirements of all the concerned authorities.
The Tribunal also came down hard on Government departments and ministries for abdicating their responsibility of protecting the Yamuna floodplains from unauthorised construction. Not accepting the contention of Ministry of Environment and Forests that the Foundation was not required to seek its Environmental Clearance for the project relating to all matters of construction, the Tribunal held that the stand of the Ministry was contrary to the Environmental Impact Assessment notification of 2006, particularly so as the development work for the event was spread over an area of over 50 hectares.
Holding that the “the Board has failed to exercise due diligence and in fact it has exercised its authority improperly in taking a stand that no orders were called from the Board in the facts and circumstances of the case,” the Tribunal imposed Rs.1 lakh cost on DPCC.
Delhi Development Authority, the land owning agency, was also fined Rs.5 lakh by the Tribunal, which said the permission granted by DDA on June 30, 2015 for the event was a “vague permission”, which, in fact, formed the very basis of the case of the Foundation.
Eager to ensure that the transgression of law which has taken this time does not become a regular feature, the Tribunal also directed DDA to not grant such a permission in future. Henceforth, it said, any permission issued by the DDA or any State or authority in relation to flood plain of Yamuna would be subject to the orders of the Tribunal.
During the course of the day, the counsel for appellant Manoj Misra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan had also submitted that the organisers had released some enzymes in the Yamuna for reducing the stench. The counsel for the Foundation gave an undertaking that no enzymes would be released into the Yamuna, its tributaries or any water bodies henceforth without obtaining due permission of Central Pollution Control Board and DPCC.