Art of Living fest: NGT questions Centre over clearances

The National Green Tribunal on Tuesday asked the environment ministry to tell in a day why environmental clearance was not required for building temporary structures in floodplains.

The question from the court came on a day it probed the clearances to the Art of Living's three-day World Culture Festival on March 11-13 at the Yamuna floodplains in Delhi, which was earlier earmarked by the courts for ecological restoration. None of the authorities accepted responsibility for giving permission to the army to build a pontoon bridge on the river for the event. This only added to the controversy over how the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) had given permission to the event after thrice rejecting it and eventually marking a copy of the permission to Union urban development minister Venkaiah Naidu's principle secretary.

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It is not known if the urban development minister's office had intervened in the matter but the chief engineer of DDA is not mandated to send copies of such permissions to the minister as a routine.

None of the agencies present in the court - Delhi Development Authority, Union ministry of environment and forests and the Delhi government - took onus for permitting the construction of the pontoon bridge for the event by the Indian Army. The green court was not engaged with the separate question of who ordered the army to build a pontoon bridge for a private civilian entity. The court will hear the matter of environmental damage caused by the event again on Wednesday and has not stayed the event.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was slated to inaugurate the event though news reports on Tuesday suggested he might opt out of the event because of "security concerns". The President of India has already opted out.

DDA, in its clearance to the event, had laid down a few conditions. The three-day event was to be held at a safe and sufficient distance from the edge of the river. DDA did not clarify safe for whom and what the sufficient distance was. It said eco-friendly material should be used and must be removed immediately after the celebration was complete. Eco-friendly material was not defined.

One of the conditions was that no material would be dumped at the site. Concretisation of the space was banned and arrangement for toilets were to be made. A security of Rs 15 lakh was charged with the warning that any violation of the conditions or those imposed by other authorities could lead to cancellation of the permission.

After the issue was raised before the National Green Tribunal, successive expert bodies found that the floodplain had been severely damaged in the process of setting up the infrastructure for the event.

One of the expert bodies appointed by the court recommended a reparatory fine of Rs 100-120 crore for fixing the damage.

Neither the expert committee of the court nor DDA have so far recommended pulling the plug on the event.

The Art of Living had earlier claimed 3.5 million would attend. Before the court, it claimed the numbers expected were around 300,000.

Central environmental laws do not require any mandatory green clearance for such temporary structures. Also, multiple agencies are involved in monitoring the environmental damage from such events in Delhi.

The lack of clarity became evident when the ministry of environment on Tuesday suggested the water resources ministry - not party to the case before NGT so far -might have been responsible for granting permission to build the pontoon bridge. Legally, four agencies - the regional office of the environment ministry, the Delhi state pollution control board, the Delhi government and DDA - could intervene in case of environmental damage to the Yamuna floodplains. None did until the green court took up the issue.

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