M Rajaque Rahman
With the National Green Tribunal (NGT) disallowing the Art of Living’s appeal to reconstitute a fresh panel to scientifically assess the alleged damage to the Yamuna floodplains due to its World Culture Festival (WCF) and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar vowing “to fight till the end for justice”, the high-profile case seems set for a long-drawn legal battle.
Soon after the verdict, Sri Sri tweeted, “Since the Art of Living has not created any air, water or soil pollution, we will fight till the end for justice.” The latest development begs the vital question why a revered saint like Sri Sri is being compelled to talk of a fight-to-finish for justice. Ever since the NGT randomly imposed a Rs 5-crore environmental compensation on the eve of WCF in March, Sri Sri has always maintained that his battle wasn’t about the money, but about standing up for justice. “I have been exhorting people to stand up against injustice and I couldn’t just bow and take the unjust verdict. We will contest this till the end,” he recently wrote in a blog post.
What is making Sri Sri’s stance look justifiable is the series of glaring inconsistencies in the handling of the case, which has been shrouded in contradictions from the beginning. Initial media reports then suggested the first assessment by a member of the NGT Principal Committee perceived no visible damage to the floodplains from the proposed event.
Even before the dust could settle on the debate over the likely damage to the Yamuna ecosystems, the NGT committee suddenly came up with a figure of Rs 120 crore as compensation cost for restoring the damage. That a responsible committee comprising eminent members can arrive at a fine of this magnitude on the basis of a visual assessment belies all logics. But what was more baffling was that the figure suddenly came down to Rs 5 crore when NGT delivered its interim order. NGT itself has proved that its assessment for damage was just a wild guess and has no sanctity.
This inconsistency gives credence to the conspiracy theory that the NGT committee overstated the damage to sabotage the event which was set to be attended by a galaxy of national and international guests. From that perspective, the same committee assessing the damage after the event defeats the principle of fair-play. For the sake of its credibility, NGT should have acceded to the Art of Living’s plea for a fresh committee as it has repeatedly questioned the logic of some of the decisions of the existing committee.
It’s reported that the NGT committee sent a team to the spot for assessment armed with a JCB even when the Art of Living was still cleaning up the ground to live up to its promise of returning it in a better condition. More than the haste, what’s making it look illogical isthat the committee needed a JCB to dig out damages. When the pre-event assessment was purely visual, what would be the reference point for the findings of the soil tests planed? If there were a scientific assessment before the event, it would have given a clear picture of the pathetic conditions of the floodplains. Such an assessment would have accounted the fact that the very venue where the WCF took place was rotting under construction debris(malba) and there are several unauthorized permanent constructions and settlements in its vicinity.
In the absence of a reference point, there is a risk of putting the blame for years of neglect on three days of Art of Living event. It’s no secret that the Yamuna and its floodplains have already been mercilessly ravaged well before the Art of Living appeared on the scene. The contamination in the Yamuna has long crossed the threshold not just for the humans, but also the aquatic life along the river bank. Findings published in the International Journal of Environmental Sciences as early as 2014 revealed that pollution has lowered the dissolved oxygen (DO) level of Yamuna waters to zero mg/l. The biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) level was found to be in the range of 4 to 29 mg/l as against the desirable value of 3 mg/l.
The Art of Living has consistently insisted that it handed back the ground “in a better condition than they received it -- greener, cleaner and with no damage to the air, water or soil.” Given the track record of the organization which is credited for rejuvenating many water bodies across the country, and in the absence of any pre-event scientific assessment, it would be unfair to dismiss the Art of Living’s claim as mere propaganda.
The Art of Living also claims that it received all necessary permissions before hosting the event. If the authorities have granted the permission to host a huge event like the WCF and expected not even a blade of grass will be touched, then they are either totally out of sync or believed too much in the divine power of Sri Sri!!! That DDA granted permission implies that the Art of Living was permitted to clean up and make the filthy and stinky place fit to host a global event.
For a fair conclusion to the case, NGT should have not only gone for an independent panel to assess the actual damage and also set fair parameters for damage assessment. Blindly reaffirming a huge compensation without proper due diligence on a reputed organization will only hurt the image of a public institution like NGT. Already questions have been raised over its attitude of seeing any complainant as a messiah and the defendant as a criminal.
Credibility, consistency and commonsense are the cornerstones of any justice system and when there is a digression, people’s faith in the system takes a beating. The emerging inside stories behind the Ishrat Jahan encounter and Samjhauta Express blast have already exposed that the process of law in the country is not totally aboveboard. In this context, the green watchdog need to act fast and shows that it is above suspicion.
(A former business journalist, the author is now driven by a passion to find the depth of the matter. His writings focus on adding spiritual aspects to things worldly.)