A confidential letter by a top bureaucrat has triggered a new controversy in the Art of Living (AOL) case over allegations that its festival had damaged the Yamuna floodplains.
Shashi Shekhar, secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, wrote to Justice Swatanter Kumar, chairperson of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that the most crucial suggestion of Rs 120-crore penalty imposed on AOL by the committee set up by the tribunal “inadvertently got recommended”.
Worse, he even said the recommendation had no scientific basis and that he missed looking into it because he had high fever.
In his letter, dated 3 March, 2016, Shekhar said, "This inadvertent mistake was largely due to the fact that I was running high fever and I could not see the entire report prepared by the experts. Though I do not deny that this issue was not discussed, in fact, it was discussed to impose a penalty of Rs 120 crore for restoration of Yamuna foodplain. I had not endorsed that view and instead suggested that after the festival was over, the organiser must restore the Yamuna floodplain, the cost of which to be scientifically assessed by the experts and the restoration should take place under under the supervision by the committee constituted by the Hon’ble NGT. Rs 120 crore as assessed by the experts was tentative and emerged as a spontaneous suggestion. It was not based on any scientific assessment."
Shekhar wrote that the entire idea was to ensure that the Yamuna floodplain is restored to the original condition and the organiser must bear the cost which should be assessed by the experts.
And then he concludes: “May I request that the NGT may consider this view was the recommendation rather than an ad hoc figure of Rs 120 crore as cost of restoration which do not have any scientific basis.”
Read the full text here.
Shekhar's letter puts the case in a quandary, especially after AOL hinted that it may approach the Supreme Court against the NGT’s order asking it to pay Rs five crore as compensation. However, the letter also raises serious questions. Why did the committee, of which Shekhar is the chairperson, not raise this issue while the slugfest between the committee and AOL officials was going on?
Strangely, no one has the answer for that. Repeated mails and telephone calls went unanswered when this writer tried to get in touch with Shekhar.
AOL had deposited Rs 4.75-crore “environment compensation” with the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) as directed by the NGT for damaging Yamuna’s biodiversity during its World Culture Festival this March. But AOL’s legal and environmental teams continued their arguments against the committee’s decision, even displaying satellite images and photographs to claim that no environmental damage was done to the Yamuna floodplains.
Interestingly, AOL had then claimed that there had been no scientific assessment of before and after situation of the floodplains by any committee. The wellness group even got a 1986 survey of India map to claim that allegation of damage to wetland along the river was"wrong" since there was no wetland there.
Environment consultant Prabhakar Rao had even argued that the charge of damage to Yamuna floodplains was not correct, since the core venue of the festival was spread over just 24.44 acres and not across the entire floodplains. Rao had even argued that allegations of AOL constructing road and ramps were false and added that those were constructed during an event organised by a media house in 2007.
But CR Babu, a member of the committee, along with his other colleagues in the committee, levelled huge allegations of damage to land form through construction of roads and ramps and levelling of floodplains, which formed the basis of the penalty imposed on AOL. Babu’s colleagues from the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, Prof AK Gosain and Prof Brij Gopal, and two other members, had endorsed the stand that AOL had caused extensive damage to the Yamuna riverbed.
Speaking from Khajuraho, where he said he was on an assignment, Prof Brij Gopal said he was not aware of any such letter written by Shekhar.
“We did not see any such correspondence between the chairman of the committee and the hon’ble judge. We are not meant to see everything that happens between the chairman of the committee and the hon’ble judge. The court has expanded the committee with some more people and another report is due to be submitted next month.”
The issue of the extent of environmental damage has been a bitter bone of contention between the committee and AOL, the latter contemplating raising the issue with the Supreme Court. Art of Living lawyer Kedar Desai said the foundation, on basis of the letter, has filed a fresh affidavit before the NGT, seeking to dismantle the existing committee and reconstitute it with new members.
“I am surprised that the committee ignored the letter, written way back in March. We would like to know if this was done deliberately,” said Desai.
The hearing is scheduled for 10 and 11 August.