The world’s social and political elite might see Jaggi Vasudev and his Isha Foundation as environmental champions but closer home, among its tribal neighbours and the farmers in Coimbatore, the organisation and its founder don’t enjoy a good reputation. Isha and Vasudev haven’t been able to counter the allegation of environmental violations from their endeavours.
People living around Isha’s yoga centre say the facility features prominently in the list of institutions that have constructed illegal complexes in the ecologically fragile foothills of the Western Ghats. Less powerful violators have been shut down while higher profile offenders, left unpunished, have even expanded operations.
The local people allege that these illegalities have exacted a toll on the environment and local wildlife, and eroded the region’s water resources and farming economy.
Curiously, Isha’s ‘Rally for Rivers’ and ‘Cauvery Calling’ campaigns market themselves as doing the opposite: improving the environment, enhancing biodiversity and water resources, and enriching farmers.
Isha insists these allegations are politically motivated and that it is fully legally compliant.
Following an email requesting details of licenses required and obtained under various environmental laws, an Isha spokesperson first pointed the author to Isha’s blog, which was devoid of any specific details. Repeated email requests over the last month for documentary evidence finally elicited a response on November 4:
Most of the Swamis who are involved in the approval process are in silence until this upcoming Pournami, which is on the 12th. So any detailed answers or documents that you’re seeking will have to wait until they come out of silence. In the meantime, we can have our volunteers who have been helping with the approval process meet with you at a mutually convenient time.
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Unlicensed construction isn’t really news in India at the moment; however, a visit to Isha by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2017 to inaugurate one of the suspect facilities appears to have triggered a change of heart among state government officials, which is noteworthy. Since March 2017, officials have reversed earlier findings of illegalities, harm to wildlife and a decision to lock-and-seal the facility, and began attempting to ‘regularise’ some of the infractions.
Their attempts notwithstanding, the yoga centre and the 112-foot-tall Adi Yogi statue that Modi opened remain illegal. Neither facility has all the licences required under various environmental laws nor do they possess valid licenses to operate under the relevant statutes. Requests to Isha to furnish details regarding these licenses were unanswered at the time of publishing.
The Isha Foundation website claims it is located in 150 acres of “lush land” with “pristine hills with thick virgin forest, sparkling rivulets and waterfalls and abundant wildlife.”
According to a letter from the forest department, Isha has since 2012 undertaken unlicensed construction over 427,000 sq. m within the yoga centre campus, including covered buildings, playgrounds and open-to-sky parking spaces.
The Adi Yogi statue is located on a 4.29-acre plot of paddy wetlands. The foundation has set up a parking lot over an additional 37 acres of paddy wetland. The “activity area” here, which includes built-up spaces and activities open to the sky, is over 150,000 sq. m in size.
Both facilities are located on private patta land. The yoga centre shares a boundary with the Booluvampatti Reserve Forest range, a well known wild elephant habitat.
The densely forested Velliangiri hills are also the birthplace of the Noyyal river, an important tributary to the Cauvery. Isha’s facilities are located between two rivers – one originates high in the Velliangiri, above the Anaiatha Koil, and flows along the northern and eastern side of the centre; the other forms the main stem of the Noyyal and flows along the south of the Adi Yogi complex. The paddy wetland is part of the land watered by the northern river.
Land-use along the headwaters and the catchment of a river determine a river’s health. The Noyyal’s headwaters in the Velliangiri are mostly densely vegetated and unbuilt. The catchment where the Noyyal climbs down to the plains – where Isha is located – has changed drastically over the last two decades. Built-up and paved or hard surfaces have replaced open, vegetated and softer paddy wetland soil, negatively affecting the hydrology.
None of the new constructions have assessed this impact. Simultaneously, enclosed spaces restrict the movement of elephants and other animals.
From an environmental standpoint, the yoga centre and the Adi Yogi statue and parking yard attract the provisions of the following laws.
→ G.O. Ms No. 44 (Planning and Development) of 2.4.1990 constituting The Hill Areas Conservation Authority (HACA) in Tamil Nadu amended on 24.3.2003 by G.O. Ms No. 49
Under this rule, in force since 1990, Isha ought to have obtained clearance from HACA before commencing any construction.
In 1990, the HACA rule argued:
The present status of the hill areas of Tamil Nadu are fast reaching a point of no-return. There has undoubtedly been an alarming decline in the ecosystem of the Western Ghats even within living memory. This is because all economic activities, ultimately, entail increased extraction of environmental resources and always have an impact on modifying them. … Therefore, when the development takes place in an ecologically fragile area like hills, the interaction leads to serious stress when the environment is loaded beyond its safe use capacity.
HACA clearances ought to be received after studying the appropriateness and impact of development at a given location. The Adi Yogi statue’s construction and subsequent branding as a tourist attraction has increased traffic and commercial activity in a predominantly wild and agrarian landscape.
→ Tamilnadu Town and Country Planning Act, 1972
Public buildings, including religious structures and educational buildings, can only be approved by the local planning authority, not the panchayat.
Sections 48 and 49 of the Act require developers to obtain permission for their proposed activities and approval for the building plan from the local planning authority before starting work.
During construction, the developer has to obtain a construction continuance certificate at the plinth level. Next, once construction is completed and before the facilities are occupied, the developer has to apply for a completion certificate. These licenses help regulators detect plan violations at an early stage.
Isha did not seek prior approval under this law for any of their buildings; the foundation applied for approval only after the buildings had been erected, between 1994 and 2011 and covering 69,193 sq. m within the yoga centre. Till date, both the foundation’s and the statue’s facilities don’t have a completion certificate from the town and country planning department.
→ Environmental Impact Assessment Notification, 2006
Isha’s facilities are “townships and area development projects”, listed as item 8(b) of the notification. Covered projects and roofless projects with a built-up area and activity area, respectively, of over 150,000 sq. m need to get an environmental clearance after undertaking a detailed environmental impact assessment.
→ Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, and Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981
Under Section 25 of the Water Act and Section 21 of the Air Act, Isha is required to obtain two licenses: a ‘consent to establish’ before constructing the facilities and a ‘consent to operate’ before occupying the facilities. The latter license is to be renewed periodically and kept up-to-date.
In a post published on its website, Isha offers a specific rebuttal to allegations of illegality. They admit they “went ahead and completed the construction in spite of not having the [HACA] clearances in hand at that time” but that the “authority, through its 59th meeting held at Chennai, gave the technical clearance to all the constructions…”. Isha also claims “the buildings have now been regularised and as we stand, all the buildings within the yoga centre premises have all the necessary permissions.”
The regularisation and full legal compliance claims are false. HACA approvals are conditional and don’t enter into effect until all conditions are fulfilled. Per the conditional approval, Isha is required to demolish certain offending structures and relocate others to mitigate the impact on elephant movement. This has not been done.
The member secretary of Coimbatore’s local planning authority confirmed over telephone that the Isha yoga centre does not have a building completion certificate, without which a facility can’t be legally occupied. The foundation hasn’t yet applied for the certificate, he said.
The officer also confirmed that the Adi Yogi statue and the associated civil works, including the car park, don’t have the planning authority’s approval. It is unclear whether the statue and the car park have HACA approval.
The yoga centre and the parking yard don’t possess an environmental clearance under the 2006 EIA notification nor the consents to establish and operate operate under the Air and Water Acts from the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board.
All environmental laws that would have enforced environmental diligence have been given a go-by. Had Isha undertaken an environmental impact assessment, the resulting report will have shown the location to be unsuitable for a project of this scale, and highlighted its impact on the Noyyal’s hydrology as well as on wild elephants in the region.
While both the forest department and the Directorate of Town and Country Planned have issued warnings to Isha since 2012, neither body has enforced the law.
Chronology of violations
→ January 19, 2012: Internal communication from forest ranger (FR) to district forest Officer (DFO):
– The foundation’s buildings are located in a route frequented by wild elephants
– As a result, elephants are routinely leaving forest areas and destroying farm lands
– Lakhs of people visiting the yoga centre use the forest road. Noise from their vehicles, the ongoing construction, the impact of hundreds of labourers working there and the heavy machinery is affecting the forest and wildlife, and harming the route taken by wild elephants.
→ February 8, 2012: Communication from FR to Isha Foundation:
– Isha Yoga has constructed on 69,193 sq. m without approval and in violation of HACA
– Work is ongoing for construction of new buildings on a large scale
– All ongoing construction works are in violation of HACA and must be stopped
– Work should resume only after HACA approval
→ March 26, 2012: FR to DFO:
– No prior permission obtained for already constructed buildings over 66,204.25 sq. m and 29,323.26 sq. metres
– New construction is ongoing over 52,278.88 sq. m and 3,217.6 sq. m
– Electric fencing on all sides affecting daily routine, life and movement of wildlife
– Owing to the enclosures, elephants stray from the reserve forest and cause damage to crops, property and lives
– Isha Foundation’s request for an NOC should be rejected
→ August 17, 2012: DFO to principal chief conservator of forests (PCCF):
– Isha Trust owns 42.77 ha of property in Booluvampatti village
– Already constructed buildings measure up to 63,380 sq.; to-be constructed buildings measure up to 28,852 sq. m
– No mandatory HACA approval obtained for both sets of construction, only application has been made
– DFO’s field inspection revealed ongoing construction as of 2012 over 28,582 sq. m (built-up space) and additional area for pathway, playground, material storage area, vehicle parking, etc. over 334,330.86 sq. m. Total is 427,700 sq. m
– 78% of total area for parking, playground, etc.
– Only panchayat approval obtained for a few constructions
– Application for HACA approval pending but construction is ongoing
– As per BSO standing order, revenue department must maintain a buffer zone of 40-60 m from forest boundary to patta land. Isha has constructed compound wall and front entrance at the forest boundary. All constructions are within a distance of 1.7 metres to 473 metres from reserve forest.
– All mentioned survey numbers are in elephant corridor
– Human-wildlife conflict has increased by ever-increasing use by yoga centre’s visitors
– DFO’s notice to stop construction on February 8, 2012, and April 14, 2012, not complied with
– In dry summer months of March and April, Mahasivarathri festival is celebrated. Lakhs of visitors use forest land.
– Due to an increasing number of religious visitors, increasing construction of Isha every day, more vehicular traffic and increased human-wildlife conflict, DFO objects to HACA approval
→ November 5, 2012: ‘stop work’ notice from Town and Country Planning Department (TCPD) to Isha:
– Proposal for approval made by Isha was incomplete and particulars were called for on October 12, 2012
– Inspection on November 2, 2012, found that construction of 60 building blocks had been completed and 34 were under construction
– Permission not issued to any of the buildings
– A notice was issued by regional deputy director of TCPD to stop construction and obtain permission within three days, failing which action would be taken under Sections 56 and 57 of TCP Act, 1971
→ December 21, 2012: Notice issued by deputy director of TCPD to restore the land to its original condition within 30 days of the notice
→ March 1, 2013: Letter from deputy director to commissioner, both of TCPD:
– Isha buildings were constructed and new ones are being constructed without TCPD approval
– Isha Yoga’s proposal dated July 20, 2011, was returned on February 20, 2012, with direction to submit a complete application
– Application was resubmitted on September 12, 2012
– Site was inspected on October 8, 2012:
– Construction was ongoing
– Building plan submitted did not tally with the ongoing work
– Considering deviation from original plan, Isha was directed to resubmit plan after obtaining requisite NOCs from forest department, Public Works Department, district collector, etc.
– Sealing notices issued, giving 30 days notice to restore land to original condition; time expired on January 26, 2013
– Citing Isha’s disregard of ‘stop work’ and sealing notices, TCPD deputy director requested TCPD commissioner to issue necessary orders to seal unauthorised buildings
→ September 3, 2013: deputy Director of TCPD to district collector of Coimbatore:
– Construction at Isha not stopped despite lock and seal notice
– Isha has not applied properly for permission
– Isha submitted revision petition to commissioner of TCPD asking for quashing of the lock and seal and demolition notices
– In the parawar remarks to the revision petition, TCPD’s deputy director restates the forest department’s objection to Isha’s buildings on grounds that they are located in an area frequently used by elephants
– The department is in a situation to reject application because buildings are for religious purposes; no HACA approval obtained; NOCs from various departments have not been obtained; application has been made for buildings already constructed
→ November 26, 2014: ‘lock and seal’ and demolition notice from TCPD to Isha:
– Lock and seal notice has already been issued in 2012
– Proposal in full form has not yet been submitted
– Construction is still ongoing
– Field inspection on January 17, 2014, revealed that construction of Sivapadam block and Dhyanalinga temple has been completed; compound on temple’s front side also being constructed disregarding ‘stop work’ and ‘lock and seal’ notices.
– TCPD issued a fresh ‘lock and ‘seal notice
→ Year ending 2017: report of the Comptroller and Auditor General:
– DFO (Coimbatore)’s field inspection in February 2012 found that construction on 11,973 sq. m was permitted by village panchayat without consulting HACA
– Field assessment report of August 2012 states that Isha continued to construct buildings within buffer areas of Booluvampatti Reserve Forest range despite notice from forest department to cease construction
– Forest department failed to take action to stop further construction
– Isha Foundation resubmitted application to forest department for NOC to allow Isha to submit application for HACA approval
– New DFO at forest department recommended the grant of HACA to PCCF for already constructed buildings and related purposes, subject to certain conditions:
Shifting of road running parallel to the forest road from south to north by 100 m away from RF; construction of adequate fencing and elephant proof trenches; and removal of kalari shed situated at a distance of 16 m from RF, water tank with swimming pool situated at a distance of 6 m from RF, and temporary shed situated on the western side, are the mitigation measures.
The member secretary of the local planning authority confirmed that compliance to the above conditions will be verified only after Isha applies for a completion certificate. No such application had been submitted at the time of publishing.
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Isha has constructed buildings illegally on sensitive catchment areas of the Noyyal and the Cauvery rivers, disregarding legal notices to stop work. This incident exposes the chinks in India’s regulatory infrastructure. One need go no further to understand why the Cauvery is calling.
The author would like to thank M. Siva for inputs and documents.
Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based writer and social activist.