Environmentalist Manoj Mishra discusses the NGT’s decision to allow the World Cultural Festival to be held on the Yamuna floodplains, and its diminished status as a result.
Environmental activist Manoj Mishra, who has been fighting to preserve and protect the Yamuna river, and its floodplains through his organisation, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, is a dejected man today. Despite winning a major battle by getting the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to issue an order to stop all construction on the river’s floodplains on January 13, 2015, all the good work has come to a naught with the NGT having allowed the Art of Living (AOL) World Cultural Festival to proceed.
In an interview with The Wire, Mishra, a former Indian Forest Service officer, talks about the event and the NGT’s decision, which he believes has harmed the body’s reputation and status more than the river.
The January 2015 NGT order stated that there would be no permanent development on the Yamuna floodplains, then how was the World Culture Festival allowed? AOL took the plea that it did not carry out any permanent constructions.
The order had clearly said no construction of any kind would be allowed. It is not restricted to permanent or temporary construction.
So the conduct of this event was a clear violation of that order?
Yes, yes. That is why we had gone before the NGT, we did not know AOL had got some permission. We went to NGT saying this is your order and it is being violated. This was our application.
But the NGT only fined AOL an environmental compensation of five crore rupees. It said the matter came to it pretty late.
See they had to allow it and they found a convenient excuse for it. When we went on February 8, there was no construction on the ground. Only the ground had been leveled but there was no structure there. We had gone then, shown them photographs and asked them to stop it. They just kept dragging it and only gave the decision when everything had been constructed.
So has the institution undermined itself?
Yes, totally. It has undermined its own prestige, just because of one event. Everyone knows why the blackmail has taken place and that is what must have happened. On the first hearing on February 11, all members of the bench were saying stop it, but one of them did not let that happen.
What do you have to do with the structures, you are an environmentalist and he wasted so much time on that. It did not give us any time. They did not give us one opportunity to tell them why I think they are wrong when they say I went late to them.
Why did you not move the Supreme Court?
At least the NGT have done something, they have abused these people. I don’t think anyone else would have done even that.
Are they under any pressure?
Obviously, everybody has ambitions. Someone wants to be a governor, someone an ambassador, someone a chairperson of some commission.
But that would destroy the institutions?
Which institution is left? After Comptroller and Auditor General, Central Vigilance Commission or Chief Election Commissioner, there are hardly any institutions left.
But the NGT was regularly pulling up the lawyers of the government agencies.
That is what they do, so that the media shows interest, covers it. It loves to be in the news. The media will only cover when it would scold the government. But it never scolds the corporate. The government agencies also know NGT will not do anything beyond that.
The NGT asked under what law can the AOL event be stopped. Was the January 13 order not enough? Why was such a question asked?
That is what it is. That is their own case, their own baby. Our application was also that. Just implement your own judgment. We did not know they had these permissions. We came to know on February 16 when AOL told about them.
The NGT has allowed AOL to complete the construction and then very conveniently blamed us.
What about the fine? AOL head Ravi Shankar said he we will not pay the amount. He has never paid one.
There is also a game there. They said they had submitted a 25 lakh rupees cheque to the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) on March 11. Has it been encashed? Is there any money in that account? Once the event is over, they will go to Supreme Court over it, matter finished.
So has this paved the way for the conduct of similar events on the Yamuna floodplains?
Absolutely. People will come and conduct events. With what face will you stop them? Delhi’s AAP government as it is wants this.
What was the role of AAP government in this? It said its role was limited to the permission for pontoon bridges that were allowed just in case there is a need to evacuate people due to floods.
No, no. There is so much stupidity in that. I did not want to embarrass them. Pontoons are never constructed during flood times. They are only constructed in non-monsoon period. They cannot be constructed during floods. So it was a totally technically flawed argument.
Was the Delhi government also keen on the event?
Totally. They all see a vote bank. That’s it.
Has the NGT damaged its own cause for the future?
What is meant to happen to the Yamuna will happen. They have completely destroyed their own status, their own institution. Tomorrow, if you have to celebrate your child’s birthday (on the Yamuna floodplains) you will say give me permission. On what ground will they stop it.
The January 13 order was a forward looking one. So what changed between then and now?
We were also completely in the dark. The NGT was also in the dark. It was only between the DDA and AOL that the issue kept going back and forth. If the DDA’s intent had been right, but how could it have been – there was political pressure (from Union Urban Development Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu). So first they approved it, then cancelled the permission, then approved it and cancelled it again. So the court also asked what happened between November 30 and December 15 that you approved the cancelled permission. What changed on the ground? Both had no answer to it. The only answer was there was political pressure. Simple. Then to save its skin the DDA issued an approval and they started with it (the event). We had no inkling of the approval, because there is nothing in the public domain.
So did you have a hunch that the event would take place. Was this a foregone conclusion?
We had the fear. But we did not know the city would stand up on the issue. That is the main achievement. Yamuna has become the mainstream, that is the achievement. The river will reclaim itself.