The National Green Tribunal has closed the matter of the World Culture Festival held by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living (AoL) in March 2016, which had degraded the Yamuna floodplain in Delhi. It has held that AoL has damaged the ecosystem of the plain and that the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) had wrongfully permitted it to conduct the event. The DDA has been directed to evaluate the damage and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s organisation must pay for the restoration of the flood plain. AoL had put up Rs 5 crore pursuant to an earlier order, but will now have to pay on actuals.
Throughout this affair, AoL has maintained a cavalier attitude to the law, ranging from indifference through defiance to contempt. One headline on its website reads: “NGT committee is biased, unscientific and lacks credibility”, with a subhead saying: “All facts point to the male fide intention of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) committee to malign The Art of Living.” However, the NGT has been scrupulously correct. It has declined to comment on the propriety of holding such events, considering it beyond its remit, and has restricted itself to the question of pollution and environmental degradation. It has pointed out that a floodplain should not be regarded as waste or fallow land, but as a commons, since it is instrumental in the cleansing of river waters, recharging of aquifers and the maintenance of wetland habitats populated by numerous species. It has observed that the government and the people have a duty to protect it.
But how could the government do its duty, when its top office-bearers had attended the event and shared the dais with the promoters? Only Pranab Mukherjee, then president, stayed away. Not surprisingly, though the World Culture Festival caused a public uproar, the political response was minimal and there was little denunciation from the ruling party, though river protection and regeneration is part of its agenda for governance. Perhaps it was the silence of the state which emboldened Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s organisation to defy and disparage the law. It is heartening that the NGT has done its duty and gone by the book, demonstrating that the polluter pays principle, which is the bedrock of environmental law, must stand, no matter how well-connected and politically influential the perpetrator may be.