Art of Living Damaged Yamuna Floodplains, Expert Panel Informs Green Tribunal

In their submission of a penalty of Rs 120 crore, that is not based on any scientific assessment, the expert committee may have harmed their own cause.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) on Wednesday announced that the expert committee, constituted by it to assess the damage caused by the World Culture Festival on the Yamuna floodplains, has held Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living (AOL) liable. But, it seems that by rushing to a conclusion without any scientific basis, that the damage was worth Rs 120 crore, the experts may have harmed their own cause.

The tribunal has now given three weeks’ time to the AOL to respond to the findings of the committee and to give their opinion on the inspection report. NGT chairperson Swatanter Kumar has also directed the committee, headed by the Shashi Shekhar, secretary of the Ministry of Water Resources, to assess the damage and furnish an estimated cost that would be required for the restoration of the area within 45 days.

To arrive at the cost of restoration, the NGT has said that the expert committee, comprising senior scientist professor C.R. Babu, professor A. K. Gosain, professor Brij Gopal and two other members, could also take the assistance of a specialised agency. The committee had earlier submitted its inspection report, dated July 28, before the tribunal.

On its part, the AOL had claimed that the allegations of environmental damage were “unscientific, biased and unsustainable”.

While allowing AOL to go ahead with their three-day festival from March 11, the NGT had on March 9 directed it to pay an environmental compensation of Rs 5 crore for causing damage to the Yamuna floodplains. The AOL had initially deposited an amount of Rs 25 lakh and had contested the imposition of the compensation.

Subsequently, after prolonged litigation on the issue in the NGT, the AOL had paid the remaining Rs 4.75 crore in early June.

Meanwhile, in a major development in the case in July, the expert panel had told the tribinal that the Rs 120 crore penalty it had recommended against AOL had no scientific basis.

Shekhar told the tribunal that the amount was “not based on any scientific assessment,” and was more in the nature of a “spontaneous suggestion”. Describing it as a “recommendation” and as an “inadvertent mistake”, he said, the error crept in because he could not see the entire report due to high fever. Incidentally, this letter from Shekhar had gone to the tribunal nearly a week before the event took place.

He also clarified that he had not endorsed the view of the experts to impose the penalty, but had suggested that the floodplains be restored by the organisers of the event.

It is this letter from Shekhar that would now form the crux of future arguments on how much the AOL should pay for the damage caused to the floodplains, in accordance with the findings of the committee.

Another argument that has furnished against the imposition of the penalty is that religious events cannot be prohibited in the name of environment. Though the World Culture Festival was never described as a “religious” event, some groups, while citing the example of the Kumbh and Chhath Puja, had demanded that they not be impleaded in the case and argued that the use of the floodplains cannot be denied if they are required for religious events.

The case is now listed for a hearing on August 28.