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Sri Sri Ravi Shankar World Cultural Festival Case: An Event That Befouled The Yamuna Floodplains

Amidst the phenomena of its evolution, via a layered system of development and drastic climatic changes, the Earth stratified itself in the most habitable and sustainable layers, which could constitute all its components that it has today. The members of the biotic community and the abiotic components of the environment together formed an ecosystem.

Nature, thus, bestowed upon us a series of multitudinal possibilities establishing survival. A survival, cohabitating all components harmoniously. Since the blissful existence of the biotic community lies in least disruptions to the abiotic components, it is quintessential to ensure a sustained equilibrium between the two.

Mankind, the smartest biotic being, ironically, has never failed to exploit and usurp all resources and natural components for his own well-being. The greed to experience the greatest pleasure out of all resources available has led to the excruciating downfall of the environmental equilibrium.

The current article highlights, the gross negligence on the part of a volunteer based, humanitarian and educational non-governmental organization that claims to articulate the ideal practices involved in the art of living.

The pivotal areas of controversy arose when the Sri Sri Ravishankar led Art of Living Organization, organized a grand World Cultural congregation to celebrate diversity, plurality and acceptance with their moto of One World One Family. With over 3.7 million attendees from over 155 countries, the festival organizers were hurled with criticism for the befoulment and complete destruction of the Yamuna floodplains, the location where the event was organized. The matter was thus taken into cognizance by the National Green Tribunal.

Role of the NGT

The National Green Tribunal has been established on 18.10.2010 under the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 and effective in expeditious disposal of cases relating to environmental protection and conservation of forests and other natural resources including enforcement of any legal right relating to environment and giving relief and compensation for damages to persons and property and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.

It is specialized body equipped with the necessary expertise to handle environmental disputes involving multi-disciplinary issues. The Tribunal shall not be bound by the procedure laid down under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, but shall be guided by the principles of Natural Justice.

The Tribunals dedicated jurisdiction in environmental battles shall provide speedy environmental justice and help reduce the burden of litigation in the higher courts. The Tribunal is mandated to make an endeavour for disposal of applications or appeals finally within 6 months of filing of the same. Initially, the NGT is proposed to the set-up at 5 places of sittings and will follow circuit procedure for making itself more accessible. New Delhi is the Principle Place of Sitting of the Tribunal and Bhopal, Pune, Kolkata and Chennai shall be the other four places of sitting of the Tribunal.[i]

The Factual Background:
The initiatives to protecting river Yamuna were taken by the Applicant, Manoj Misra, a retired officer from the Indian Forest Services, back in 2007 via the establishment of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan Campaign. According to the retired officer, the river was an aquatic lifeline for millions of people and others dependent on its sustenance.

The Applicant had, on numerous occasions facilitated advancing of remedies concerning an unrelentless encroachment of the sacred Yamuna river through several applications addressing the concerned authorities. The applications were all dealt collectively wherein the respondents concerning the Yamuna pollution were placed chronologically, i.e., The Delhi Development Authority, GNCT of Delhi and the Art of Living International Center respectively being the prime respondents in the case.

The Art of Living International Center was allegedly accused of construction involving illegal and unauthorized dumping, recklessly carried out in light of a World Cultural Festival Celebration, with a gathering of around 3.5 million people, to be held from 11th March to 13th March 2016 on the Yamuna Floodplains.

The Applicant further added that not only did the authority permit the damage being caused to the floodplains for an event but also failed to comply with the orders given by the NGT under the Yamuna Judgement (Manoj Misra v. Union of India [ii]).

Issue Raised:
The NGT upgraded its duly constituted 4-member Shekhar Committee to a 7-member Committee which would look into the pertinent issues concerning the matters into controversy involving Respondent no. 3, wherein they would give a complete report, in terms of the judgement, in case of environmental damage or destruction caused to the Yamuna Floodplains, if any, and impose an appropriate compensation or liability for the same.

The Committee was directed to address the two major issues:
  1. the environmental damage and degradation caused by holding the event in the area, and;
  2. the environmental compensation payable for restoration of the floodplain.[iii]

Judgment:
In light of the Applicant's plea, an expert committee of 4-members was constituted by the National Green Tribunal to assess the damage caused due to the World Cultural Festival organized by the Art of Living Organization.

The 47-page report prepared by the Panel chaired by Shashank Shekhar and three other members, namely, Prof. C.R. Babu, Prof. A.K. Gosain and Prof. Brij Gopal, asserted that:
'entire floodplain area used for the main event site i.e. between DND flyover and the Barapulla drain (on the right bank of river Yamuna) has been completely destroyed, not simply damaged.'[iv]

The report vehemently asserted that:
The area where the grand stage was erected (and the area immediately behind it) is heavily consolidated most likely with a different kind of external material used to level the ground and compress it. Huge amount of earth and debris have been dumped to construct the ramps for access from the DND flyover and from the two pontoon bridges across the Barapulla drain.

The report further stated that:
'the ground is now totally levelled, compacted and hardened and is totally devoid of water bodies or depressions and almost completely devoid of any vegetation.'[v]

It also added that the absence of vegetation had severely compromised the floodwater retention capacity of the area. The 4-member Committee, after giving a lucid explanation to the Applicant's contentions agreed upon the gross environmental hazards that the floodplains faced.

Prior to this, the NGT had allowed the Art of Living to go ahead with the event after depositing an interim compensation of Rs. 5 Crores. A part of the expert committee wanted the fine amount to be more; but this is the amount that was agreed upon. (March, 2016)

The 7-member Committee in its report stated that Art of Living caused the deplorable condition, the river had today. The led to the clearing of vegetation, levelling and compaction of the ground and filling up of the water bodies, construction of the stage, pontoon bridges and other temporary structuring and most importantly construction of access roads that led to the blocking of the side channel of river Yamuna and thus the area witnessed a change in topography, loss of waterbodies, wetlands, the floodplains and the vegetation. There has thus been an immense violation the ecosystem, disrupting the entire ecological balance with a three-day event.

The various Committees enumerated varied set of recommendations as per their respective findings which envisaged a common consensus of the treatment of the degraded wetlands of the Yamuna Floodplains. The Committee proposed the change and development in the aquatic life for the situation to improve in its best possible forms.

This involved the introduction of macrophytes, submerged and floating aquatic plants and their respective microbial and invertebrate communities. Once, the aquatic vegetation is developed, the aquatic fauna particularly the fishes have to be introduced. Similarly, the marshy lands also need to be treated like the wetlands and the erosion must be brought under control through the de-compacting of the various floodplains.

The NGT also took due note of the polluter's pay principle citing the case of Society for Preservation of Kasauli and its Environs vs. Bird's View Resort and Ors [vi], it observed that:
The liability of the polluter is absolute for the harm done to the environment which extends not only to compensate the victims of pollution but is also aimed to meet the cost of restoring environment and also to remove the sludge and other pollutants. A large number of tourists and vehicles which are using the roads and are carrying on such other activities for their enjoyment, pleasure or commercial benefits must be made to pay on the strength of the Polluter Pays principle.

It will be entirely uncalled for and unjustified if the tax payers' money is spent on taking preventive and control measures to protect the environment. One who pollutes must pay. The Tribunal issued directions in consonance with the Constitutional mandate contained under Articles 21, 48-A and 51-A(g) which are the very essence of the Act of 1986.

The NGT concluded that though the Respondent No. 3 ensured a distinguished series of attested paperwork in regard to approval of the essential regulations of the event from the verified authorities, it could not ascertain the accomplishments of its pre-enumerated conditions which involved the following quintessential requisites:
  1. No concrete constructions to be built
  2. Proper waste disposal and management of all kinds of debris accumulated
  3. The assurance of zero toilet waste/debris disposal into the river which would come out of the temporary toilets established for the attendees of the event.

The National Green Tribunal upheld its previous Committee judgement levying rupees 5 Crores for the purpose of restitution /restoration and beautification of the floodplains of river Yamuna.
It further stated that the 5-crore deposited by the Respondent No. 3 shall be utilised by the DDA (Delhi Development Authority) for the restoration purposes under the supervision of the Expert Committee.

The Tribunal did not impose any penalty upon Respondent No. 3 citing Section 26 of the NGT Act, 2010, and thus provided Respondent No. 3 to comply with the judgement.

Conclusion
The Art of Living Foundation though dissatisfied with the final verdict abided by the NGT's order. An appeal thereafter, was brought in on behalf of Vyakti Vikas Kendra (a charitable trust of SS Ravi Shankar) to stay the NGT verdict of Dec 7, 2017. The SC refused to do it and further issued notice to Mr. Manoj Mishra, on whole plea wherein the fine was imposed by NGT. Despite Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's claim for another appeal against the NGT to quash the imposed compensation as invalid, no appeal has been brought in after dismissal of the Vyakti Vikas Kendra Appeal.

End-Notes:
  1. NGT Official Website (About Us): https://greentribunal.gov.in/about-us
  2. 2015 ALL (I) NGT REPORTER (1) DELHI 139
  3. Final Judgment of the NGT delivered on the 7th of Dec, 2017.
  4. Art of Living Event Completely Destroyed Yamuna Floodplain: Expert Panel by Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar (This article contains the excerpts of the 47 page report constituted by the NGT.)
  5. Ibid.
  6. O.A. No. 69 of 2017 Decided on 30th May, 2017 by the NGT
Written By: Deeksha Baghel, B.A. LL.B-(Hons.)/ 7th Sem - Amity Law School, Amity University, Lucknow.

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