Sri Sri Ravishankar’s Art of Living Foundation (AoL) is “responsible” for “causing damage and environmental degradation” to the Yamuna floodplains due to its three-day World Culture Festival (WCF) held in March 2016, the National Green Tribunal said on Thursday. The tribunal, which had earlier levied Rs 5 crore as environment compensation, did not impose any further costs on AoL.
Earlier this year, an NGT-appointed expert committee had noted that the rehabilitation of the floodplains would cost over Rs 42.02 crore and may take up to ten years. The tribunal said that AoL was responsible for “restoration and restitution of the flood plain limited to portion that was allotted” to it for the festival “in the original condition in which it was allotted to it prior to the event”.
“We hold and declare that Respondent No. 3 (AoL) is responsible for causing damage and environmental degradation of the flood plain of river Yamuna limited to the area that was awarded to it by Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and the State of Uttar Pradesh, in terms of the report of the High Powered Committee,” the order read.
Reacting to the verdict, the AoL expressed “disappointment” and claimed it had complied with all environment norms and its submissions before the tribunal were not considered. “We will appeal to the Supreme Court. We are confident that we will get justice before the Supreme Court,” AoL said in a statement.
The judgment noted that the WCF had caused “serious pollution on the floodplain of the river” as nearly 35 lakh people had gathered at the site. “The flood plains are not and cannot be equated to waste lands. They should not be treated as lands lying fallow and utilized in the manner which is unacceptable and would have adverse impacts. It is the duty of the statutory authority, Government and the people at large to protect and preserve the flood plains or river Yamuna,” the judgment noted.
In the judgment, NGT rejected arguments put forth by AoL on the lack of wetlands at the Yamuna. It stated that AoL’s contention that wetlands have not been notified, “would no way take the case” put forth by them any further. “It is primarily for the reason that in large parts of the country the wetlands as of now have neither been identified nor notified in accordance with law. But that does not by itself establish the fact that the wetlands are not in existence,” it said.
Further, the tribunal stated that AoL’s contention “that the damage assessment of the flood plains and wetlands is only based on satellite imagery of Google of September 5, 2015” was “misplaced”. It said that “Google imagery has only supplemental value to the field inspection that was carried out by the Committee”.
“In our considered view, Respondent No. 3 has not been able to discharge his onerous burden in all aspects. Of course, in some areas justification has been provided particularly in the field of taking permission but in other areas the reports of the High Powered Committee on the contrary does not benefit Respondent No. 3 and in no uncertain terms places the fault on the said respondent. Principle of No Fault Liability is a tool for guiding the Tribunal in determining the liability of Respondent No. 3,” the order noted.
The tribunal turned down AoL’s objections to the expert committee’s findings, stating: “We do not find any merit in the objections raised by Respondent No 3 in relation to the reports of the High Powered Committee.”
The expert committee had found that “approximately 120 hectares (about 300 acres) of floodplains west (right bank) of the Yamuna and about 50 hectares (120 acres) floodplains of the eastern side (left bank) of the river have been adversely impacted ecologically at different magnitudes”.
Further, it said, these activities have led to “change in topography and habitat diversity, loss of waterbodies and wetlands, loss of floodplain vegetation and biodiversity, changes in substrata – nature of soil, consolidation and compaction, toxic substances and degradation and loss of ecosystem functions”.
In its 98-page order, the Bench headed by NGT chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar pulled up the DDA. “We are of the considered view that the DDA has failed to exercise its statutory duty in consonance with the environmental laws in force. As evident, it is the duty of the DDA to maintain the natural features and ecology of the flood plain which they have failed to do, in the facts and circumstances of the present case,” the order stated.
The Bench, also comprising Justice Jawad Rahim and expert member B S Sajwan, stated that the floodplain and the entire land in question is the property of the DDA and Uttar Pradesh and it was the “prime responsibility” of its upkeep fell upon the DDA. But the NGT did not impose any costs on DDA, either. “We would have imposed environmental compensation upon DDA as well but keeping in mind that it has already planned construction of bio-diversity park and improvement of flood plains from its funds, we do not impose any further environmental compensation upon DDA,” it said.
As regards the Rs 5 crore deposited by AoL with the DDA, the NGT said that the amount shall be utilised for restitution/restoration and other necessary work for the floodplains under the supervision of the expert committee.