Five months after the National Green Tribunal (NGT) deemed that a fine of Rs 5 crore was compensation enough for denuding the Yamuna’s floodplains, the conclusions of an expert body constituted by the green body have shone the light on the damage done by the cultural extravaganza organised by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living foundation in March. By all accounts, the Rs 5 crore fine was all that the green body could salvage after being served a fait accompli by the spiritual guru. The expert committee has found that the damage to the floodplain is irreversible. The topography has been altered, it has lost its biodiversity and is shorn of all its vegetation. The floodplain has been flattened beyond repair.
Brazenly but predictably, the Art of Living Foundation has rubbished the committee’s report and called for a fresh investigation. The organisation which had earlier delivered homilies on reviving the floodplains without giving any evidence of either the expertise or inclination to do so has now challenged the bonafides of the seven-member committee which includes senior scientists from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi and the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, Nagpur. The outfit’s reaction is only along expected lines. It had even deemed the Rs 5 crore as unfair and paid the amount only after being pulled up by the green body. Far more unfortunate, however, is the manner in which the NGT appears to have conducted itself in this affair. The green body had in a verdict a little more than a year before the Art of Living extravaganza, forbidden all construction activity on the Yamuna floodplain. It’s a sad commentary on the state of environmental governance in the country that its premier green body has to prevaricate on its earlier verdict. The NGT, it turned out, did not even have a proper map of the features of the affected area before the preparations began for the World Culture Festival. It is unfortunate that it had to take recourse to an expert committee when the damage had already been done.
A floodplain is an extension of the river’s bed. Its functions include flood mitigation and water recharge. Flattening a floodplain — as during the Art of Living event — leads to the hardening of its surface. It loses its water recharging capacity. Altering its topography diminishes the floodplain’s water carrying faculties. The report of the expert committee constituted in the aftermath of the Art of Living event has shown that the NGT failed to protect such an ecologically sensitive area. It is deeply disturbing that the country’s apex environmental tribunal allowed itself to be pressured and intimidated.