NGT vs AOL: How the green tribunal flouted its own order against Sri Sri's organisation

New Delhi: It seems polluting our natural resources would be completely acceptable to the national green watchdog -- the National Green Tribunal (NGT), if the polluter is ready to pay a fine for it.

That is the precedent NGT has set in the high decibel case of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar headed Art of Living (AOL) Foundation's World Culture Festival whose venue, the Yamuna floodplains, stand in danger of permanent damage because the NGT allowed the foundation to walk away with just a fine.

 NGT vs AOL: How the green tribunal flouted its own order against Sri Sris organisation

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. AFP

The AOL founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar by taking a U-turn on his earlier statement has given up the idea of going to jail and instead has paid Rs 25 lakh as part of the Rs 5 crore fine on Friday.

On the other hand, showing leniency towards the ‘godman’s’ global festival, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) besides allowing to pay in instalment, has also given a three-week period for paying the balance amount of the initial fine.

Probably, the green tribunal – the highest regulator on environmental issues keeping in mind that the ‘show must go on’ forgot its own judgment of January 2015 – ‘Polluter Pays’ principle’ and allowed the foundation to go ahead with ‘Pay and Pollute’. This message has gone in public after the NGT allowed the AOL Foundation on 9 March to go ahead with the festival after paying an initial fine of Rs 5 crore.

Despite showing serious displeasure over the turn of events, the NGT allowed dilution of its order passed on 9 March. Hearing the appeal made by the Foundation, the principal bench of the tribunal headed by justice Swatanter Kumar on Friday allowed the AOL Foundation to pay Rs 25 lakh and the rest within three weeks. The original judgment had clearly asked the organiser of World Culture Festival (WCF) to pay Rs 5 crore before the commencement of the event (11 March).

The foundation appealed the tribunal today that they would be able to pay only Rs 25 lakh, as Rs 5 crore amount was “too big for them” to pay in one go.

What the NGT said on Friday?

The bench said that it was extremely distressed and it was unfortunate for a person (Sri Sri Ravi Shankar) of such eminence to make such a statement in public (that he would rather go to jail than pay fine).

What legal experts say?

The legal experts have taken a strong exception to the NGT’s order of 9 March and subsequently that of Friday’s where AOL Foundation has been allowed to go ahead with the show by paying only 5 percent of the initial fine of Rs 5 crore. According to experts, “Technically the tribunal should have taken action on 11 February when the petition was filed. Instead, the NGT has violated its own earlier judgment, which has set a bad precedence in public life.”

Advocate Ritwick Dutta, a counsel for the petitioners said, “NGT’s order has set a bad precedence. This order communicates the message of ‘Pay & Pollute’ and that’s what has happened in this case. AOL Foundation has been allowed to ahead with the mega-event by paying only Rs 25 lakh, and not even the full initial amount of Rs 5 crore! Here the message that has gone to public is very clear – those who have big pockets and right connections can flout the law and escape — be it Sri Sri Ravi Shankar or Vijay Mallya.”

“What an irony! In its earlier judgment of 13 January 2015, the tribunal clearly stated that no construction and no celebration of any kind should be allowed on the floodplains of River Yamuna. Here the point is if NGT’s order was violated, why DDA – the implementing agency didn’t stop the foundation from doing it. Second, the NGT in its order said that since the petitioners approached the tribunal late (11 February), the event can’t be stopped. Based on its previous order, the tribunal could have taken cognizance and stopped it, rather than waiting for a citizen to come up with a PIL. The case dragged almost for a month thus giving time to the foundation to have a full-fledged construction. This is ridiculous,” added Dutta.

Shehzad Poonawala, legal and social activist remarked, “I’m thoroughly disappointed by the lack of spine and conviction by the NGT in upholding its own order and principles of environment protection. It has allowed the ‘Polluter pays’ principle to be inverted into a ‘Pay and Pollute’ principle (very little of course). Moreover, relaxing the amount of fine and payment period! What’s worse is the convenient concessions granted to a law breaker, who happens to be a good friend of our PM! What message does it send to others? Break environmental guidelines, challenge the courts, be brazen and the tribunal/court will back off? Had the NGT and authorities acted in time, the event could have been stayed and shifted to a safer zone, and no controversy would have taken place.”

What others say?

“Though I’m not a petitioner but as an activist I feel the tribunal should have acted on its own as it’s the NGT bench in 2015 banned all kinds of activities on Yamuna floodplains. But surprisingly it didn’t. It’s only after we moved a petition, whatever little we could do has taken place. We expected a strong action from NGT as it’s the apex court to ensure country’s environmental protection,” an activist working on Yamuna issue said on condition of anonymity.

Badal Saroj, central committee member of CPM said, “The opposition parties have raised this issue in the Parliament. But, right from the beginning I have been maintaining that justice Swatanter Kumar might have been vocal during the hearing of this case, but when it comes to issuing order and taking a bold stand, he fails. It happened this time again, even today. This is very unfortunate. The NGT should have taken a strong and uncompromising stand, as damaging ecological system and bio-diversity is not only national but a global issue.”

What AOL Foundation says?

Advocate Akshama Nath, AOL Foundation’s counsel said, “We’ve paid Rs 25 lakh and we pleaded that the rest amount would be paid over a period of four weeks. But, the tribunal has given us three weeks period. The important point here is that NGT has mentioned that the amount is not penalty but for environment compensation for developing bio-diversity, which is also our objective.”

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Updated Date: Mar 11, 2016 21:09:11 IST