Chennai: One year after a controversial event by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living foundation on the Yamuna flood plains in Delhi raised questions about the environmental credentials of India’s influential godmen, a retired high court judge has pointed to building violations by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev’s Isha Foundation in Coimbatore and urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi not to “lend legitimacy” to them by attending a function there.
Modi will visit the foundation’s premises on Thursday to take part in its Mahashivratri festival celebrations and is also expected to unveil a 112 foot Shiva statue there.
At a press conference organised by Poovuligin Nanbargal in Chennai on February 22, the NGO’s office bearers asked the prime minister to cancel his visit. They say that several cases are pending against the foundation for constructing several buildings in violation of government rules, regulations and norms.
“I am the petitioner in a writ petition No.5885 of 2013 filed in the Madras High Court,” said lawyer and activist M. Vetriselvan. “The petition asked the Madras high court to issue a writ of mandamus directing Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev to demolish all the illegal buildings and structures constructed by the Isha Foundation in and around Ikkarai Bolluvanpatty village, Coimbatore district. In fact on December 24, 2012, the deputy director, town and country planning, Coimbatore region, issued a “’locking and sealing and demolition notice’ to the Isha Foundation directing them to demolish within 30 days from the date of receipt of this notice all the religious buildings and other buildings within the campus in survey numbers 48/1, 48/2, 49, 50 etc at Ikkarai Pooluvampatthy village and restore the land to its original condition”.
Vetriselvan also said that the deputy secretary, housing and urban department filed a counter affidavit to his original petition in the high court. In that petition, the Tamil Nadu government said, “ it is submitted that since the Isha Foundation has been constructing buildings without the approvals obtained from competent authorities, the office of the deputy director of town and country planning has served stop work notice to Isha Foundation on February 11, 2012 and subsequently locking and sealing notice by invoking under Section 56 of the Act was served on December 24, 2012”. Vetriselvan said that the writ petition was still pending before the Madras High Court.
Despite the notice issued by the state government, illegal construction went on unchecked inside the Isha Foundation. “The extent of illegal buildings and structures constructed there is about 1,25,000 square metres. Now, when the state government itself agrees that there were illegal constructions and its original locking and demolition notice still stands, it is unfortunate that not only the prime minister but also chief minister Edapadi Palanisami are going to take part in the Mahashivarathiri festival there”.
A surprise visitor to the NGO’s press conference was D. Hariparanthaman, a retired judge of the Madras high court. “Inspite of the Tamil Nadu government’s own submission that there were illegal constructions, not a single building was demolished by the concerned authorities till this date. There are four writ petitions pending in the high court and it’s sad that the cases could not move an inch forward even after three years of their filing. The visit of the prime minister will send a wrong signal and award legitimacy to these illegally constructed buildings. Hence we request [him] not to visit Isha Foundation” said Hariparanthaman. He added that “the construction of huge illegal buildings will affect the flora and fauna of that area and also pollute the Noyyal river. The pollution of this river will have a cascading effect in the entire western region of Tamil Nadu”.
Apart from the Left parties and other organisations have also said that Modi should cancel his program. “Along with likeminded parties and other groups we will stage a massive demonstration when the prime minister arrives at Coimbatore. We will organise a massive black flag demonstration across Coimbatore to register our protest” says G. Ramakrishnan, state secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Though the DMK is in opposition, its leaders have not so far spoken out on this issue.
However, the Isha Foundation is completely unperturbed. ”Well, this is a democratic country and everyone has a right to express his or her opinion. We have not indulged in any illegal activities. We have not encroached upon even an inch of land. The matter is sub judice and hence I cannot comment on the charges levelled by those who are opposing the prime minister’s visit. We have the peoples’ support and I don’t want to comment more than this” a senior official of Isha Foundation who asked not to be named told The Wire on Wednesday.
The Isha Foundation is running a school inside its campus.”This school is being run in a building illegally constructed by Vasudev. In fact, the Tamil Nadu government itself in its counter affidavit to my writ petition categorically stated that Jaggi Vasudev had already illegally constructed 62 building blocks and 15 more building blocks were in the process of being constructed and that the school in question was being run in one of those constructed blocks” says Vetriselvan.
In addition to the writ petitions pending in the Madras high court, Poovulagin Nanbargal has also approached the National Green Tribunal, South Zone, in Chennai. The NGO wants a permanent injection restraining the Isha Foundation from conducting its Mahashivarathri festival and other cultural extravaganzas within the buffer-zone of the adjacent forest where the foundation is situated. The NGT has already issued notices to the Isha Foundation, the Tamil Nadu government and the centre to explain why such a permanent injunction should not be granted. This case is coming up for hearing on March 23, 2017.
The prime minister is also expected to unveil a 112-foot Shiva statue in the Velliangiri hills where the Isha Foundation is situated. The erection of the statue has also been challenged by the Velliangiri Hill Tribal Protection Society. In a PIL, the society said that that the village where the Isha Foundation is situated was under the ambit of the Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA) and that no construction is allowed without the prior sanction of the authority.
Animal rights activists have also been engaging in a running battle with the Isha Foundation for the past few years. They allege that construction work by the Isha Foundation has adversely affected the ‘elephant corridor’ in the western region of the state and this has led to elephants frequently straying in to local villages.