NEW DELHI: Notwithstanding raging controversies, decks were today cleared for the three-day cultural extravaganza of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living on the Yamuna flood plains with the National Green Tribunal expressing its helplessness in banning the event because of "fait accompli".
Nevertheless, it imposed a fine of Rs five crores fine on AOL as environmental compensation after coming down heavily on the foundation for not disclosing its full plans and also on the DDA and Environment Ministry for their role.
Late in the night, the AOL announced that it will appeal against the NGT order. Any challenge to the NGT order usually lies with the Supreme Court.
The green tribunal which found several environmental violations committed by the organisers blamed the delay on the part of environmental activists in raising the issue before it which compelled it to grant permission for the event.
As activists raked up the question of serious environmental violations on account of the event in which about 35 lakh people are expected to participate, President Pranab Mukherjee has already pulled out of the valedictory function on Sunday in which he was to speak.
There was still speculation whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi will open it on Friday. He is yet to take a decision whether to attend the inaugural function, official sources said.
The government also came under attack from opposition in the Rajya Sabha for allowing the event and deploying army for construction of pontoon bridges in the area.
But government rejected criticism saying Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was committed to environment protection and the issue cannot be discussed in the House when it is being considered by a tribunal.
"For the reason of delay and laches on the part of the applicant in approaching the Tribunal and for the reason of fait accompli capable of restoration and restitution, we are unable to grant prayer of prohibitory order and a mandatory direction for removal of construction and restoration of the area in question to the applicant at this stage," a bench headed by NGT Chairperson Swatanter Kumar said.
The NGT clearance came on a day the Delhi High Court described the event, from whose valedictory function the President has already pulled out, as a "disaster" from the ecological point of view.
The tribunal said that as per documents placed on record it is evident that flood plains have been drastically tampered with and ramps, roads, compaction of earth, pontoon bridges and other semi-permanent or temporary structures were constructed without the requisite permission of the concerned authorities including Ministry of Water Resources.
"For the damage caused to the environment, ecology, biodiversity and aquatic life of the river, the Foundation should be held liable for its restoration in all respects. In that regard and in exercise of our powers under Sections 15 and 17 of the NGT Act, 2010, we impose an Environmental Compensation, initially of Rs 5 crores," the green panel said.
The bench said this amount would be paid by AOL prior to commencement of the event and would be adjusted towards final compensation determined to be paid by it for restoration work.
The tribunal also constituted a committee of the representatives of Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC), Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) and Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and said it shall immediately inspect the site.
It said the committee shall issue directions by tomorrow with regard to the source of water, collection and disposal of the municipal solid waste and sewerage generated during the event and also issue directions to ensure that there is no further environmental degradation or adverse impact on public health.
The bench said that certain material deficiencies/ discrepancies were pointed out by the Delhi Police regarding safety, construction stability and other requirements.
"We direct the Foundation to comply with the safety, construction stability and other requirements of all the concerned authorities as well as obtain permission from the Police Department, Fire Department and also fulfil other requirements stated in the letter of the Police Department," the bench said.
It also directed the Principal Committee constituted by it, to submit a report within four weeks from today, in relation to steps required to be taken for restoration and rejuvenation of flood plains to their original status.
"It will also state the approximate cost that would have to be incurred for such restoration and restitution. We further direct that entire area in question shall be developed as a biodiversity park in terms of our judgment...," the green panel said.
"The Foundation shall, by tomorrow, file an undertaking before the Tribunal that it would, within two weeks from date of demand by DDA, pay the balance amount for restoration, as directed by the Tribunal," it said.
The panel held that the permission granted by the DDA to the foundation for the event on June 30, 2015 was a "vague permission" and was not in consonance with orders of the NGT.
"Cultural activity could be recreational but the entire construction of ramps, roads, accumulation of debris, alteration of the natural topography and removal of natural vegetation from the flood plains, cannot be said to be recreational. It is a complete project in itself and the DDA ought to have applied its mind.
"Strangely, it has neither conducted inspection of the site prior to the grant of permission nor during operation or subsequent thereto. Consequently, we impose a cost of Rs 5 lakh on DDA for its defaults and non-performance of its statutory functions," the bench said.
The bench also directed that DDA shall not issue such permission in future and any permission given by DDA or any authority with regard to flood plain of river Yamuna, will be subject to the orders of the tribunal.
The panel took the undertaking of the foundation on record that it will not release enzymes into the river and its tributaries without obtaining due permission of CPCB and DPCC.
It rejected the contention of MoEF that it was not required for the Foundation to seek environmental clearance for the project relating to all matters of construction.
"The stand of MoEF is contrary to the Notification, particularly with respect to development of an area of more than 50 hectare as contained in the EIA Notification, 2006," it said.
The panel said that information provided by the Foundation in its application for permission was incomplete, vague and uncertain since it did not provide any specific data or comprehensive plan with regard to carrying on of such a huge construction, levelling activity and also construction of pontoon bridges, ramps, parking and a huge stage.
"This must lead to drawing of adverse inference against the Foundation. We would have expected the Foundation to disclose its entire project besides holding of the cultural activity to all the concerned authorities. Even on that count, the Foundation would be liable to pay compensation," it said.
The bench also rejected the contention of DPCC that it was not obligatory upon it to grant or refuse the consent to the Foundation for making such construction and the manner in which it would deal with the waste generated at the event.
"...we have no hesitation in holding that DPCC has failed to discharge its statutory obligation despite the fact that the Foundation had submitted an application for obtaining its consent.
"The Board has failed to exercise due diligence and in fact it has exercised its authority improperly in taking a stand that no orders were called from the Board in the facts and circumstances of the case. Thus, we impose costs of Rs. 1 lakh on DPCC," the bench said.