New Delhi: Amid fears of severe ecological damage to the Yamuna and lingering security concerns, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on Wednesday allowed the Art of Living (AOL) to go ahead with its “World Culture Festival” as a “fait accompli” while imposing strict penalties and censures on the foundation, including Rs 5 crore to be deposited as environment compensation before the start of the event, even as speculation abounded on whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi would attend the extravaganza or not. The verdict came two days after President Pranab Mukherjee cancelled his plan to attend Sunday’s valedictory session.
The AoL announced later that it would appeal against the NGT order as its chief, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, tweeted that “he was not satisfied with the verdict”.
हम इस निर्णय से संतुष्ट नहीं हैं I हम अपील करेंगे I सत्यमेव जयते!— Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (@SriSri) March 9, 2016
Warning the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and Delhi Pollution Control Committee to not issue such orders in future, a fine of Rs 5 lakh and Rs 1 lakh, respectively, was slapped on the civic bodies for failing to perform their “statutory functions”.
In the Rajya Sabha, the government drew criticism from the Opposition for allowing the Indian Army to assist a “private function” as a united Opposition demanded the festival’s cancellation in view of the environmental disaster it would cause. The government defended itself, saying that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s intentions cannot be doubted as he was committed to protect the environment, even as finance minister Arun Jaitley said the issue cannot be raised in the House as it was being heard by the NGT.
Minister of state for environment Prakash Javadekar said NGT had given permission after the ministry had clarified to them that this kind of programme and temporary structure does not require environmental clearance under the environmental law and environment notification, claims that were rejected by the tribunal. Union water resources minister Uma Bharti said her ministry had no role in “giving or cancelling” permission while extending her wishes to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
On the other hand, JD(U)’s Sharad Yadav described the event as “destruction unseen in history” and said “Rs 5 crore fine was peanuts”.
In a parallel development, the Delhi high court said it (the AoL event) appears to be a “disaster” from the “ecological point of view” due to removal of the shrubs and trees. “The area has been flattened. You (government) have given permission for a big pandal on the flood plain,” a bench of Justices Badar Durrez Ahmed and Sanjeev Sachdeva said.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who has been backing the upcoming gala event, welcomed the NGT order and said “politics and controversies” around the event should be “put to rest”. “Now that NGT (National Green Tribunal) has given its verdict, all politics and controversies around AoL event should be put to rest. It’s a huge cultural event to which people from 155 countries are coming. Delhi welcomes all guests,” he said in a series of tweets.
Delhi Pradesh Congress Committee chief Ajay Maken said nobody should be allowed to break the law, howsoever big he may be, to hold such a festival without proper environmental clearance from agencies like the police, fire and water authorities and the DPCC.
Allaying security concerns for the three-day event, expected to be attended by more than 3.5 million people, the Delhi police said around 4,000 personnel from all 17 police stations in southeast district and Delhi police’s specialised units, including the Economic Offences Wing (EOW) and Special Cell, will be deployed for the festival. Delhi police’s PM security unit is also involved in the process amid reports of a threat perception to the event. The Delhi police, in a report to the UD ministry, has red-flagged possibilities of “stampede”, “pandemonium” and “utter chaos” at the venue, besides raising concerns over the structural faults in the stage made for the Prime Minister. “We direct the foundation to comply with the safety, construction stability and other requirements of all the concerned authorities as well as obtain permission from the police department and fire department, besides fulfilling requirements raised by the police.”
The Army, sources said, was initially reluctant — due to certain constraints — to agree to a request to build five pontoon bridges, but finally agreed to build two pontoon bridges to prevent any possibility of a stampede.
The bench, headed by NGT chairperson Swantanter Kumar, reprimanded the AoL for giving “vague and uncertain” submissions on the matter and asked them to give an undertaking by Thursday that enzymes would not be released into the Yamuna river, and that no further degradation of the environment will occur, besides directing them to develop the entire area into a biodiversity park.
“For the reason of delay and lapses 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 prayer of prohibitory order,” the bench observed, adding, “As per documents placed on record it is evident that flood plains have been drastically tampered with and ramps, roads, compaction of earth, pontoon bridges and other semi-permanent or temporary structures were constructed without the requisite permission of the concerned authorities, including ministry of water resources.”
The tribunal also constituted a committee of the representatives of DPCC, environment ministry and Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for a site inspection while urging them to draw an assessment of the damage that would be caused.
Urging the environment ministry to not test their patience, the NGT rejected the ministry’s contention that the foundation was not required to seek environmental clearance for the project relating to all matters of construction. “Its (ministry) stand is contrary to the notification, particularly with respect to development of an area of more than 50 hectare as contained in the EIA Notification, 2006,” it said, adding, “DDA and DPCC too have failed to discharge and perform their statutory obligation.”
Unhappy with the verdict, one of the petitioners seeking cancellation of the event, Manoj Mishra, said the venue of the event is under active judicial consideration and that’s why DDA did not come to the tribunal earlier....