Whether Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living (AOL) Foundation eventually succeeds in holding its ambitious World Culture Festival (WCF) 2016 on the floodplains of river Yamuna in Delhi is debatable, but one thing is certain: it'll not find it easy to explain its position to the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
It's the NGT that recommended a fine of Rs 120 crore on AOL Foundation for causing damage to Yamuna floodplains and it posed tough questions to the representatives of the AOL Foundation and the government agencies at the NGT court on Tuesday.
At the hearing, the respondents (mainly government agencies) either contradicted their earlier statements or failed to justify why they granted the necessary permissions for the three-day event to AOL Foundation.
Here's a glimpse into what happened at court:
NGT to AOL Foundation
(A) On DDA's permission to organise the festival on Yamuna floodplains
NGT: Delhi Development Authority (DDA) gave you permission, then it was revoked, and later it was again granted. Could you please tell how AOL Foundation convinced DDA to get the permission again?
AOL Foundation (vague in its reply): No reason was cited. We again applied and permission was granted with a few conditions attached by the DDA. What changes on ground that led to the permission is not known, but we'll present it tomorrow.
[Note: Originally, the permission wasn't given by the DDA due to a standing prohibition order of the NGT not to hold any kind of event on Yamuna floodplains.]
(B) On number of visitors attending the festival
NGT: Without any confusion, give us the exact figure of the number of visitors attending the event. Numbers have differed every time: one number was given to the court and another was quoted in the advertisement.
AOLF: The estimated number is three lakh. It will be between two and three lakh.
[Note: However, the AOL Foundation on its official website has claimed that 3.5 million (35 lakh) people from 155 countries are expected to congregate at the World Culture Festival.]
(C) On Environment Impact Assessment of the project
NGT: Did you conduct any environment impact assessment?
AOLF: Not on paper, but we had meetings with various ministries and officials.
(D) Regarding permission
NGT: Delhi Police and the fire brigade haven't yet granted permission to WCF.
AOLF: Permissions from most authorities have been taken. Permission from the police and the fire brigade will be taken once the stage is ready.
(E) On construction
NGT: Can't a temporary construction on the ground be considered as a 'construction'?
AOLF: It's temporary by nature and eco-friendly materials have been used.
NGT: How can a stage (structure) of 40 feet high and equally large in size remain erect without digging the ground to fix poles using boulders, compaction of floodplains, levelling etc?
AOFL: No concretisation was done and mud used for levelling. Used plates to hold the poles of the structure in place. [But there was no clarity on whether digging was conducted or not]
[Note: NGT asked the authorities concerned, including the DDA, whether they ever visited the venue after they gave the permissions and once construction began.]
Questions NGT asked various government agencies
On pollution: What about the pollution that would be caused because of the emission from thousands of vehicles used by attendees to arrive at the venue?
On construction of Pontoon bridges and ramps: On what basis was permission? Did any government agency conduct inspections during construction?
On impact of the event on the environment: Did any of the authorities — DDA, National Capital Territory, UP government, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Ministry of Water Resources, etc — consider the impact of this mega-event on floodplains, the environment, the river?
Why is Delhi Pollution Control Committee's (DPCC) permission not needed?
DPCC's lawyer Biraja Mahapatra reasoned that since it's a cultural festival unlike any industrial activity, no permission of DPCC was needed.
The NGT disagreed, stating that the event will have repercussions on the environment with vehicles adding to pollution levels. Mahapatra then said the DPCC would revisit the original application of AOLF and get back to the NGT during the next hearing on 9 March.
It came as a surprise to the NGT when many of the agencies revealed that they were not aware of the size of the festival and the area it would cover while granting permission.
What environmental activists say:
Anand Arya, one of the petitioners against AOLF and DDA, told Firstpost, "DDA raised objections to AOLF's application because the said venue is a 25-year floodplain line and as per the NGT, it's sacrosanct. No celebrations can take place over there. Now the organiser has to tell the tribunal on what basis they again got permission after cancellation."
The environment expert added, "It's surprising to find government agencies unaware of the size of the festival. How can they give permission without having a detailed plan of the mega event? Moreover, the damage that would be caused to Yamuna bio-diversity that was built over centuries can't even be imagined. Now the AOLF has reduced its visitors from 35 lakh to 3 lakh! Even if permission is given on the basis of 3 lakh visitors and if the number swells up, are they prepared to handle any mishap?"
"It seems to be a case of connivance between the DDA and AOLF, because despite having a standing order from the NGT, permission was granted to hold this mega event," another activist said on condition of anonymity.
What AOL Foundation says:
"Allegations have been levelled against us for violating environmental norms. Before we began, we put applications to relevant authorities, seeking permission. We've written to the Ministry of Environment and DPCC - both the agencies are top most as far as environment issue is concerned. Rest, we'll present before the NGT tomorrow," said AOL Foundation's counsel Akshama Nath.
Petitioners, organiser of WCF and government agencies are waiting to hear the verdict from NGT after the hearing on 9 March.
[Disclaimer: The story carries only the essence of day's proceedings at the NGT and is not a verbatim representation.]