In a setback to the Art of Living Foundation of spiritual leader Ravi Shankar, the National Green Tribunal on Friday held it responsible for causing damage and environmental degradation of the Yamuna flood plains by holding a three-day cultural extravaganza last year.
While refusing to impose an additional environment fine on the AoL which has already deposited Rs 5 crore, the NGT ordered the DDA to use this amount to restore the floodplains and bill the AoL if the cost is more or return to it the balance if the cost is below that amount.
The AoL termed the verdict as "erroneous and untenable" and said they would move the Supreme Court against it.
Ordering that the Yamuna riverbed should not be used to hold any cultural activity of this kind in future, the green panel directed the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) to assess the damage caused on floodplains and compute cost of restoration in line with the recommendations of the expert panel appointed by it.
"We hold and declare that AoL is responsible for causing damage and environmental degradation of the floodplain of river Yamuna limited to the area that was awarded to it by DDA and the State of UP, in terms of the report of the High Powered Committee," the NGT said in its judgement.
The AoL had organised the World Culture Festival from March 11-13, 2016, on the floodplains and constructed an oval-shaped stage over an area of seven acres.
Noting that the AoL has already deposited Rs 5 crore with the DDA, it said "in the event, the expenditure for that purpose on the portion of the land forming part of Phase-II of the project of DDA is found to be in excess of Rs 5 crore, DDA would be at liberty to recover the said amount and AoL shall be liable to pay the said amount on demand.
"If finally the expenditure to be incurred on that amount is less than Rs 5 crore, the remaining amount would be refunded by DDA to AoL," a bench headed by NGT Chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar said.
The tribunal rapped the DDA over its failure to maintain the natural features and ecology of the Yamuna floodplains and said it has failed to exercise its statutory duty in consonance with the environmental laws in force.
It, however, refrained from imposing environmental compensation on the DDA on the ground that it has already planned construction of a bio-diversity park and improvement of floodplains from its own funds.
The bench, also comprising Justice Jawad Rahim and expert member B S Sajwan, said that even the Delhi Pollution Control Committee had failed to exercise due caution in granting permission to AoL. It should have considered the request for permission in accordance with environmental laws in force.
Before the pronouncement of the judgement, the NGT was informed that Justice R S Rathore, who had earlier heard the matter, had recused from the bench.
In a statement, the AoL termed the verdict as "erroneous and untenable" and said they did not agree with it and will approach the Supreme Court.
"The Art of Living will approach the Supreme Court. We are not in agreement with the verdict. AoL is disappointed with the decision taken by the NGT for damaging Yamuna floodplains during its World Culture Festival.
"We do not agree with the verdict. Our submissions have not been dealt with/considered. We will appeal to the Supreme Court. We are confident that we will get justice before the Supreme Court," AoL said.
Yamuna activist Manoj Misra, who had claimed that severe damage was done to the river and the floodplains and had filed a plea in the NGT in this regard, termed the decision as a victory for Yamuna.
"Our contention has been vindicated. We had said that the damage was caused to the floodplains and the NGT has upheld our plea. This is victory of river Yamuna. I hope a strong message will go across the country to those who are damaging the floodplains of the rivers. People need to know that river floodplain is not waste land," Misra said.
The expert panel had earlier told the NGT that an estimated Rs 42.02 crore would be required to restore Yamuna floodplains which was ravaged due to the cultural extravaganza.
Misra had claimed that severe damage was done to the river and the floodplains and it must be restored by authorities concerned.