Ravaging Yamuna flood plains: Art of Uncaring, Egoism and Cronyism

Ravaging Yamuna flood plains: Art of Uncaring, Egoism and Cronyism

India and the whole world has just witnessed the most horrible display of utter lack of concern for the environment by the Art of Living (AoL) foundation led by new- age guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar which organized a massive international cultural festival slap bang on the Yamuna floodplains in Delhi to commemorate 35 years of its functioning. The AOL organizers and its supporters at the highest echelons of the Central Government brazened out the storm of criticism by environmental groups, scientists, judicial bodies, large sections of the media and the general public. Through delaying tactics, subterfuge and evident influence-peddling, AoL finally managed to secure permission for holding the event from the National Green Tribunal (NGT), before which a case had been filed citing violation of its own past rulings, which also however imposed costs on AoL for environmental damage caused and restitution.

Strong evidence had been put forward by the petitioners, and by a Committee of eminent scientists and experts appointed by the NGT, of extant and potential future environmental damage to the flood plains, harming not only the riverine ecosystem with its flora and fauna but also its capacity to recharge the already badly depleted underground aquifers in Delhi and neighbouring areas. The NGT and the Delhi High Court both endorsed these opinions. But all these were rudely and arrogantly brushed aside by AoL, including by Sri Ravi Shankar himself, whose expertise in environmental sciences is unknown, clearly showing that he, like many other prominent “spiritual leaders” in India, is himself full of the egotism and pride (ahankaar) he proclaims to have overcome and calls upon their followers to renounce.

Image Courtesy: www.moef.nic.in

This arrogant and dismissive attitude towards ecological destruction and expert opinion was echoed by such as Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu who categorically ruled out any pollution of the Yamuna due to the event, and stated that on the contrary it was the “minds of the critics” that were polluted, presumably including the experts and the judiciary. No surprises there, since Prime Minister Narendra Modi strongly extended full support to the event, addressed the inaugural, and hinted at the now-familiar knee-jerk BJP-Sangh Parivar accusation of any criticism as “anti-national” by charging critics of the event with potentially harming India’s interests by raking up controversy. Clearly a memo had gone out prescribing this position since all BJP and RSS spokespersons had been repeating this line for several days!

The whole episode, in all its aspects, has badly exposed the rotten condition of the environmental regulatory system in India, the total institutional failure of concerned governance structures, the opaqueness and arbitrariness of approval and related processes, and the willingness of authorities to bend any and all rules at the behest of the rich and powerful, especially cronies backed by the ruling political establishment.

Environmental Impact

The extensive construction and related activities relating to the AoL event is widely known to have caused substantial damage to the delicate ecosystem of the Yamuna flood plains in several different ways.

An expert committee set up by the NGT when considering the plea to deny permission to AoL conducted an admittedly brief and cursory inspection of on-going preparations and construction activities prior to the event. The Committee comprising well-known scientists from IIT Delhi and Delhi University, other experts including retired senior officials of the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) and the Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, found that gross violations of environmental regulations were being committed over an area of around 400 hectares taken over for the event (many times more than the area originally sought from DDA), that large-scale damage was already apparent, and that well-planned and substantial measures would be required to ameliorate the damage and restore the eco-system. The Committee estimated that all this was likely to cost Rs.100-120 crores and recommended that this be recovered from AoL in accordance with the “polluter pays” principle.

Response of AOL including by the venerable Sri Ravi Shankar, his spokespersons and leading BJP functionaries dismissing this indictment showed either complete ignorance of environmental issues or deliberate obfuscation. They kept repeating that no pollution of the Yamuna was taking place, no permanent construction was being done, only environment-friendly materials were being used, no trees had been cut and that they would undertake clean-up after the event. These miss the point completely.

It must first be understood that a river is not just a channel of water like an irrigation canal for instance. Even well-meaning people often restrict themselves to skimming waste materials off the water surface to “clean the river.” A river’s complex ecosystem extends along its length, breadth and depth including the river bed with all its aquatic life, and also beyond its banks laterally, to what are known as its flood plains i.e. land that is not continually under water but gets submerged once in a while during overflow of the main stream. Here fertile silt is deposited, smaller water bodies and marshlands with abundant flora and fauna are sustained, many functions related to natural processes of cleaning the surface waters are performed, and where recharge of underground aquifers takes place. Floodplains are an integral part of the riverine ecosystem and are ecologically sensitive zones with influence far and wide. In the Yamuna at Delhi, the floodplains are areas likely to be flooded once in 25 years or so, and include the Okhla Bird Sanctuary close to the AoL event location and which is an important site in the annual migration of birds from far-off Siberia.

The NGT-appointed Committee had opined that, keeping in mind these ecological features of the Yamuna floodplains in Delhi, major damage had been done, particularly in 50-60 hectares on the western side, by the flattening of the venue area and the compacting of the soil caused by movement of vehicles, workers and the numerous people expected to attend the function (AoL estimates varied from 3.5 lakhs cited at the time of seeking permission and 35 lakhs cited in publicity material). This would adversely impact the soil flora and fauna and, importantly, would severely affect groundwater recharge capability. The leveling and other works also changed the natural gradients of the floodplains with negative impact on its capacity to hold flood waters and increasing chances of flooding of nearby areas. The Committee further noted that the leveling, clearing and related activities on the venue site had resulted in small water bodies, wetlands and swampy areas being filled up, and vegetation such as shrubs and small trees being ripped out not only directly damaging the riverine ecosystem but also affecting the river bed and interfering with natural water flows. The impact on bird and insect life can be imagined, given the similarity and close proximity to an ecosystem prized enough to be declared a Bird Sanctuary.

On top of all this is the construction of the humongous stage, dumping of construction wastes all over the floodplains and possible into the body of the river itself, the 650 plus toilets and all their waste, and the parking sites. Farmers in the region have also been displaced and affected.

Long term damage includes blockage of the Barapulla drain where it meets the river, long-lasting impact on plant and aquatic life, and possible cascading effect on the Okhla Bird Sanctuary. In short, as the Expert Committee said, this would leave “a permanent footprint on the floodplain.”

Role of Agencies

All this is in clear violation of the orders of the Delhi High Court in 2006 and the NGT guidelines issued in January 2015 which prohibited all construction and other activities with impact on the ecology of the river and its floodplain, as noted by the Experts, by the NGT and by the High Court.

The NGT was scathing on the callous role played by concerned government Agencies, violating stipulated rules and its own mandates as custodians of the environment. The main land-owning agency, the DDA, clearly gave permission to the event in the full knowledge that it was in violation of NGT guidelines. DDA claimed that it considered the proposed activities to be “temporary,” that it gave permission for less area then taken over and used, and that it was not made aware of the scale of the event. Surely, DDA could have stepped in once it became aware of these discrepancies which were being widely being reported in the media. Later, many previous applicants for staging events in or near this venue went on record in social media that they had been denied permission citing the NGT guidelines which obviously had been put aside for SriSri and his top-ranking political backers.

The MoEF had been mysteriously silent or absent or gave evasive statements throughout the brouhaha. The NGT pointedly asked the Ministry whether it did not think an event of this magnitude that threatens the Yamuna required its clearance, and asked it what steps it had taken to prevent damage.

NGT finally gave permission at the last minute stating that the event was now a fait accompli and could realistically not be stopped. It also imposed what it initially described as a “fine” of Rs.5 crore on AoL, to considerable public criticism. Realizing that the term “fine” was being interpreted as condoning the damage, in other words not “polluter pays” but “pollute and pay,” the NGT later stated that this was actually payment for mitigation of damage. But then what about the Rs.100-120 crores estimate made by the NGT-appointed Committee?

The existence and functioning of the NGT has undoubtedly given an additional layer of protection from ecological damage and has given the public a valuable forum to approach, which is essential in view of the egregious disregard of rules and the flagrant environmental damage caused by industrial and commercial interests. The BJP government is trying its best to somehow devalue the NGT and cut down its powers, notably through the notorious TSR Subramanian Committee Report. But the NGT has not been able to tackle the structural flaws in the environmental regulatory system. What do you do when the custodians themselves turn violators or at least condone violations?

In the case of the AoL event, the NGT invoking the “fait accompli” argument is extremely disappointing and turns the clock back. The Akshardham Temple is a huge permanent stone and concrete structure built bang on the Yamuna floodplains after being given approval by the then NDA government which was challenged in the Courts but was finally allowed because much construction had already taken place and, what with administrative shenanigans and judicial delays, had became a “fait accompli.” That has been the fate of many judicial reviews on many a project including the Narmada dam. Fait accompli and “in principle” approval pending compliance with conditions have been long abused to circumvent efforts at regulation. This must end, and will do so only if some big projects are simply denied permission if there is clear evidence of violation.

It is also required to look again at the enabling legislation. Even today, there is no legal framework for viewing a river as a multi-dimensional ecosystem and extending it protection. There are only piecemeal legislation governing some aspects of regulation such as construction on floodplains or dredging of the river bed.

Now what?

So can the Yamuna ecosystem be repaired or restored now? Experts will tell you that some repair is possible, such as if the soil is de-compacted, loosened up, and if shrubbery, reeds etc are carefully planted and water bodies restored. Much of the damage, however, will take many years even decades to recover.

However, this must be done after careful study and through rigorous monitoring by experts. Unfortunately, no agency, MoEF or Ministry of Water Resources or Delhi Pollution Control Committee, conducted any systematic study of the Yamuna floodplain in Delhi before granting permission to AoL. So even if restoration work is undertaken, nobody knows to that status it should be restored. Nor is there any scientific plan for restoration, nor a monitoring mechanism.

What is clear is that, given the utter failure of all regulatory and executive agencies, the NGT must continue to guide and monitor this process, chiefly by appointing an Empowered Committee to prepare a plan and monitor its implementation, preferably by or under supervision of a public body such as the DPCC. Not by AoL who should only pay for the restitution as per the decision of the NGT while granting permission.

On-going activities by AoL to “repair” any damage which they believe has not been done will not only not work, but is counter-productive and may even compound the damage already done. AoL has just commissioned an NGO to clear garbage left after the event: this is only cosmetic. AoL has amply demonstrated that it has no knowledge, expertise or even concern as regards environmental issues. It even once claimed that it is improving the Yamuna ecology by sprinkling some unknown enzymes into the river, which concerned authorities should have immediately stopped. It now claims it will build a bio-diversity park in that area. AoL should be firmly told they have done enough damage and should just leave the Yamuna alone for better-equipped agencies to handle — and pay the bill.