Perhaps the National Green Tribunal (NGT) doth not protest too much, but forsooth it doth protest too late. It has pulled up the Art of Living Foundation (ALF) for standing in the way of its expert panel, which was to inspect the venue of the World Culture Festival hosted by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in the floodplain of the Yamuna. The body was scheduled to sketch out an action plan for rejuvenating the site, which was overrun by giant structures and hordes of visitors in the course of the extravaganza, and reckon the modicum of compensation which would make good the damage and restore the site to its former state.
But the NGT has only itself to blame if it now looks like a walkover. After barring Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s show on the ground that it would harm the ecosystem of the river, it had backed off when it found itself served with a fait accompli by the spiritual leader. Hectares of the flood plain had already been levelled and denuded of its natural vegetation (Sri Sri had earlier disparaged it as “weeds”), farms had been uprooted to make way for roads, support infrastructure and a stage of about seven acres, and an impressive guest list had been drawn up, including a bishop, a grand mufti, the prime minister and the higher echelons of the Central and state governments. Only the president had declined to attend the event.
But the NGT’s real comedown was the readiness with which it allowed the show to go ahead on the payment of Rs 25 lakh, just five per cent of its initial demand of Rs 5 crore. When a watchdog organisation backs off repeatedly, it leaves behind the impression that it can be brushed off. And now, the ALF has prevented the NGT’s expert panel from inspecting the site in order to compute the final compensation figure and facilitate rejuvenation over the long term. The incident has set several unfortunate precedents. It has left behind the impression that it is legitimate to do environmental damage if compensation follows. Further, it suggests that compensation is not necessarily laid down by a court — if the authority of the tribunal is not absolute, it can be bargained with, as if it were a market entity. Indeed, it can be trifled with.