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NGT slaps fine of Rs 50,000 on airlines dumping human waste from airplanes…no, really

New Delhi: Human waste being splattered on houses from airplanes while landing, on Monday led the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to slap a fine of Rs 50,000 on the airline whose aircraft empties toilet tanks on air.

The NGT directed aviation regulator DGCA to issue a circular to all airlines, whose planes are involved, to pay Rs 50,000 as environmental compensation.

A bench headed by NGT Chairperson Swatanter Kumar passed a slew of directions while disposing of a plea of a retired army officer alleging dumping of human excreta by aircraft over residential areas near the IGI Airport here.

Normally, the waste in the aircraft tanks is disposed of by ground handling personnel once the plane lands. However, there are cases where lavatory leaks occur in the air.

The tribunal asked the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to issue circular to all ground handling services and airlines to ensure that they do not release waste from human waste tanks while landing or anywhere near the terminals of the IGI Airport.

Representational image. ReutersRepresentational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

“DGCA shall also issue directions that aircraft on landing shall be subjected to surprise inspection to see that human waste tanks are not empty. If any aircraft is found to be violating such circular or (their) tanks are found empty on landing, they shall be subjected to environment compensation of Rs 50,000 per default,” the bench said.

The direction came on the plea of Lt Gen (Retd) Satwant Singh Dahiya who has sought action against the airlines and levy of hefty fines on them for endangering the health of residents, terming their act as a violation of the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’.

While issuing directions, the green panel also said it was “surprised” to note the stand taken by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) that on analysing the samples taken from the petitioner’s house, it could be ascertained that it was excreta but its source could not be known.

“We are surprised to note the stand of CPCB to the extent of coliform and the kind of splashes created on the houses of the petitioner as well as others clearly demonstrate that it was human excreta,” the bench said.

It added that the amount collected shall be deposited with CPCB for using it for environment protection and a quarterly report shall also be submitted by DGCA before it.

DGCA was also asked by the tribunal to set up a helpline so that similar complaints can be addressed and the helpline number, as well as email address, be kept in public domain.

During the hearing, DGCA told the bench it has issued a circular to constitute a committee to investigate the matter.

The NGT had earlier slapped a cost of Rs 5,000 on the Environment Ministry and the Ministry of Civil Aviation for their failure to file inspection report on the plea.

It had also directed CPCB to depute a senior environmental engineer to inspect the petitioner’s house and check the existence of human excreta on its walls and if excreta was found, samples should be collected for analysis and the report placed before the tribunal.

In his petition, Vasant Enclave resident Dahiya had sought the creation of a 24-hour helpline for immediate reporting of such incidents and a monitoring mechanism to check that no aircraft drops “human soil or excreta” while landing.

The Ministry had opposed the argument and said plane toilets stored the waste in special tanks which are normally disposed of by ground crews once the plane lands. However, aviation officials acknowledge that lavatory leaks can occur in the air at times.

First Published On : Dec 21, 2016 11:03 IST

Delhi pollution: Governments have least concern for citizens health, says NGT

New Delhi: “Governments elected by people have the least concern for the health of its citizens”, the National Green Tribunal today said as it passed a slew of directions including setting up of centralised and state level monitoring committees to prepare action plans to combat pollution in a bid to tackle environment emergencies.

Asking Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan to consider banning 10-year-old diesel vehicles from plying on the roads, the green panel said, “The time has come when all concerned authorities must show concern to improve the ambient air quality in their states.”

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

The NGT directed that every state committee should, in their first meeting, notify one district where the land use of agriculture is high and make it a model district for implementing orders to stop stubble burning.

“The basic fundamental question which arises for consideration is whether state governments and especially the Delhi government can provide scientific justification as to why the people of the national capital should be exposed to such severe pollution. The governments which have been elected by people have the least concern for the health of their citizens,” a bench headed by NGT Chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar said.

Terming as “severe” levels of pollution when PM 10 and PM 2.5 are above 431 and 251 micrograms per cubic metre respectively in the ambient air, it said when air pollution takes such alarming proportions, immediate steps are needed to be taken as an environmental emergency.

In such situations, helicopters should be used to sprinkle water in the Delhi-NCR region, especially in those areas where pollution levels are in excess of the prescribed standard limits, the bench said.

Coming down heavily on states for not taking action against farmers burning farm residues, NGT asked them, particularly Punjab, to consider withdrawal of incentive including the grant of free power to farmers burning crops.

“In such emergency, states shall immediately provide happy seeders or other such machines in agriculture fields for removal of agriculture residue and incentives should be provided to farmers to sell their paddy straw to biomass plants, industries and board making units.

“All construction and demolition activities and transportation of construction material should be halted temporarily and stone crushers should be directed to shut down,” it said.

NGT’s website hacked: Litigants, lawyers unable to access daily orders and judgements

New Delhi: The hacked website of National Green Tribunal remained unaccessible for the second consecutive day on Wednesday after it was blocked by National Informatics Centre, with officials hoping that it would become operational in another couple of days.

National Green Tribunal's logo. Image courtesy: conservationinida.org

National Green Tribunal’s logo. Image courtesy: conservationinida.org

“This site can’t be reached,” said a message posted on the green panel’s website. NGT officials said the NIC was working on the site, which came under cyber attack with a group posting profanities, and it was likely to be restored soon.

“We have already complained to National Informatics Centre and the site is blocked as of now. We are in touch with them and hopefully the website would be restored in a day or two,” said an NGT official on condition of anonymity. The NGT officials said they were providing the causelists of cases to the NGT Bar Association who are in turn circulating it to others.

A case has already been registered in the cyber cell at the Tilak Marg police station in this regard. Litigants and lawyers, who accessed the website for a list of hearings scheduled were having a tough time as they could not access important contents like daily orders or judgements.

Advocate Balendu Shekhar, who represents East Delhi Municipal Corporation in the green panel, said the NGT’s orders used to get uploaded daily by the evening but after the hacking episode, the site has been down for two days now.

“The biggest issue is of compliance of the NGT order. Non-availabilty of the judicial order leads to delay in implementation of the order. So there is always a threat of contempt looming large,” he said. Another lawyer Gautam Singh said the NGT website was quite useful as it gave out the composition of bench, list of cases, daily orders, judgements or any latest announcements.

“There is now a delay in execution of orders as we have to ask for the orders which were earlier available online,” he said. Amul Mani Tripathi, a litigant, blamed the NGT officials for the problem and said he has filed a case but was totally unaware about when it would be listed for hearing.

The NGT website was hacked on 3 October evening by a group claiming it was an act of “revenge” against Indian army’s surgical strikes across the Line of Control.

After surgical strikes, Pakistani hackers attack Indian websites with profanities, claim ‘revenge’

Seven terror launch pads were targeted across the LoC by special forces of the Indian Army during the surgical strikes on 29 September. A week after the attack, various Indian websites faced cyber attacks by Pakistani hackers. The hackers claim that the attacks were an act of “revenge” against the Indian Army’s surgical strikes across the Line of Control.

On 3 October, the National Green Tribunal’s website came under attack with a group hacking it and posting profanities, claiming it was an act of “revenge”, reported PTI.

“We are Unbeatable. You… kill innocent people in Kashmir and call your self defenders of your country. You…violate the ceasefire on border and call it ‘Surgical Strikes’. Now kiss the burn of Cyber War,” the hackers said in the post replete with expletives.

Representational image. ThinkstockRepresentational image. Thinkstock

Representational image. Thinkstock

The hack was noticed around 7.15 pm on Monday. This was the second time after 2013 that the website has been hacked.

A day after the incident with the National Green Tribunal, another group hacked the website of a university and posted “Pakistan Zindabad” slogan on it.

Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean studies (KUFOS) authorities said they filed a complaint with the cyber
cell of the state police after the incident was noticed.

“Given the serious nature of the incident, we immediately alerted the security agencies. They had posted ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ slogan on our website,” the university’s registrar VM Victor George said.

According to a report by The Times of India, a group of Pakistani hackers have claimed that they have hacked 7,070 Indian websites and released a list of names early on Tuesday. The cyber security specialists told The Times of India that the hackers are not experts, but are ‘script kiddies’ who don’t write their own code, while hacking websites.

The report suggested that the group has in the past hacked websites of Tata Motors, AIADMK and Taj Mahal, and on Tuesday, said that “there is more to come.”

Another report by the The Times of India suggested that on Tuesday, Pakistani hackers tapped into the frequency on which pilots of Indian carriers landing into airports close to the LoC — Jammu and Thoise Air Force base — operate and blocked communication. The hackers then started transmitting Pakistani patriotic songs on the same frequency, which then played out in the cockpits.

This hampered the landing process for these pilots who found the songs irritating.

Counter-attack by India

To counter these cyber strikes, an Indian cyber security organisation has claimed that they have entered Pakistan’s critical infrastructure systems (including the country’s defence infrastructure) and would be prepared to destroy the system if the need arose, reported The Hindu. A top official from the organisation claimed that they are waiting for a go-ahead from the Indian government.

“We have entered the critical infrastructure of Pakistan. The moment we get the go-ahead, we will destroy these,” said S Amar Prasad Reddy, Additional Director- General, National Cyber Safety and Security Standards, while addressing a conference at the Anna University in Chennai.

Cyber war between the hackers of the two nations is not new. ‘Vulnerable’ government sites from both sides have been hacked in the past.

With inputs from agencies

Kaziranga national park: A vortex of eviction drive, politicisation and hapless animals in Assam

Efforts to free the Unesco-World Heritage Site Kaziranga National Park in Assam from encroachments has put the BJP-led state government on a collision course with its arch-rival Congress as the latter claims it was haphazardly done.

The Assam government was initially praised for its intent by going ahead with the eviction drive on Monday as ordered by the Gauhati High Court in October last year. After stiff resistance from the squatters which led to the death of two people, including a woman and leaving 19 injured, the political tension over the move is quietly brewing.

Villagers take part in the funeral procession of the two people who were killed during the clashes with police, in Kaziranga on Tuesday. PTIVillagers take part in the funeral procession of the two people who were killed during the clashes with police, in Kaziranga on Tuesday. PTI

Villagers take part in the funeral procession of the two people who were killed during the clashes with police, in Kaziranga on Tuesday. PTI

“The government of Assam is not serious about Kaziranga. They have acted against a very small portion of the area which is affected by encroachments while implementing the Gauhati High Court order. They have completely mismanaged the process of resettling the people living in these demolished villages who were actually willing to relocate against adequate compensation,” Congress MP from Kaliabor Lok Sabha constituency in Assam Gaurav Gogoi told Firstpost.

“There was no notice in writing prior to the eviction. Nobody from the government has visited the evicted people. So disproportionate was the use of force that a huge police force of 1,800 was used against 300-odd families,” Gogoi said.

“Despite their huge numbers, why did the police have to fire directly at the civilians? This resulted in the loss of two lives. We condemn it. The eviction was carried out in a marginal area but the government did not act against the resorts and the well-connected influential people. They acted only against the poor,” he said.

However, it is worth mentioning that the encroachers in the three villages refused the compensation that was offered by the Assam government.

Significantly, the high court order that was passed on 9 October, 2015 — when the Congress was in power in the state — had directed that the eviction had to happen within a month. The Sarbananda Sonowal-led BJP government came to power on 25 May this year.

“The Deputy Commissioners of Golaghat, Sonitpur and Nagaon are directed to take expeditious steps to evict the
inhabitants in the second, third, fifth and as well the six additions of the Kaziranga National Park, including Deurchur Chang, Banderdubi and Palkhowa, within one month,” the high court had said.

Former Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi tweeted, “The BJP-led State Government has failed to take necessary measures before carrying out the eviction drive at Kaziranga. Removing people from land by resorting to firing is condemnable. High Court had given a ruling but there is a process to ensure its adherence.”

Pertinently though, the former chief minister kept mum on why his government failed to prevent encroachment in its 15-year-long tenure.

Taking on the former chief minister, Assam Minister for Education, Health and Finance Himanta Biswa Sarma also rejected Gogoi’s stance that they had plans to go to the Supreme Court to challenge the high court order.

Assam Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. PTIAssam Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. PTI

Assam Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. PTI

“The apex court had already rejected the SLP (Single Leave Petition). Even the Gauhati High Court rejected the petition to review its order when the eviction drive was on. What Tarun Gogoi is saying is not correct. The previous government had actually not honoured both the Supreme Court and the high court. They even built a colony in the area where eviction was ordered,” Sarma said in a press conference on Tuesday.

“What is shocking is that deep inside the park there was also construction of a road going on under the PMGSY (Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana), an Anganwadi school was set up and even electricity was provided. The school was a voting centre in the last polls. Our government had stopped the construction of the road,” the minister said.

Sarma pointed out that “demographic destabilisation is the larger plan to benefit those who want to win polls with their votes”. The minister said the Congress was in the process of securing their voter base by increasing the population of a particular community right up to Upper Assam which is now a BJP stronghold.

“Vote bank politics is not a big thing. But this was in complete violation of court order,” he said.

A total of 331 houses were demolished on Monday and around 35 families had pattas. A patta is a legal document issued by the government in the name of the actual owner of a particular plot of land.

Giving details of the eviction drive, the minister said, “Total of 175 families in Banderdubi, 115 in Deurchur Chang and 12 in Palkhowa were evicted. The swathes of land under encroachment in Banderdubi was 2,244 bighas, 126 bighas in Deurchur Chang and 42 bighas in Palkhowa.”

As per the measuring system followed in Assam, one bigha is equal to 2,880 square feet.

The Congress MP, however, did not quite agree with Sarma.

“The boundary of Kaziranga National Park is periodically revived and expanded to accommodate the increasing animal population. These villages were initially outside the park before. So it is quite natural that they obviously had public infrastructure and facilities before. There are so many families who were living there for 50-60 years. And what about the infrastructure built there when Sarma was a Congress minister? Wasn’t he the education and health minister?” the Kaliabor MP asked.

Although the Congress opposition to the eviction was a relatively muted one owing to the fact that it was a court order, Gaurav did raise the issue of pattas in a Facebook post.

“Kaziranga has special place in everyone’s hearts. Even in the hearts of the people who were evicted by the recent HC order. They were always willing to move even though many had legal papers dating to the old AGP government.
The only request they had was that are poor and needed financial aid from the government,” Gaurav said.

The high court order had though dealt with the issue of patta-holders. Magicbricks.com explains patta as “a legal document that defines the ownership of a property”.

“The acquisition and eviction of human habitation is being done for protecting the wildlife which is exposed to rampant poaching. The authorities have complied with all the formalities…. In the face of the Constitutional obligations on the part of the State with a corresponding duty on the part of the citizens it would be highly untenable on the part of the petitioners to take technical pleas and expose the wild life to a great danger of extinction,” the Gauhati High Court observed in its order.

Kaliabar MP Gaurav Gogoi taking a tour of the area near Kaziranga National Park where an eviction drive was acrried out. Image courtesy Gaurav Gogoi's Facebook pageKaliabar MP Gaurav Gogoi taking a tour of the area near Kaziranga National Park where an eviction drive was acrried out. Image courtesy Gaurav Gogoi's Facebook page

Kaliabar MP Gaurav Gogoi taking a tour of the area near Kaziranga National Park where an eviction drive was acrried out. Image courtesy Gaurav Gogoi’s Facebook page

The parliamentarian questioned Sarma’s claim that it was no longer an issue of mere encroachment but a something that had connection with jati (identity), maati (land) and bheti (base).

“The government’s slogans of jaati, maati and bheti are questionable. When they have given away oil fields in auction where is the question of bheti? When their central govt have given away land to Bangladesh then where is the question of maati?” Gaurav asked in his Facebook post.

However, the then Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi was also on board when the land swap issue had made progress. In April 2013, Gogoi had on record spoken in favour of the land swap with Bangladesh.

“As per the agreement, Bangladesh will retain possession of 267.5 hectares of the land while we will get the remaining 397.5 hectares. Assam will not lose anything. May be in map, we will lose but on the ground we will gain,” Gogoi had said then.

While analysing the impediments affecting the eviction process, the CAG report in a detailed report in 2014 pointed out politicisation among others as one of the major hurdles. The reasons it cited are:

“(i) Protracted litigation due to cases filed by encroachers in various Courts, some of them are still pending; (ii) Strong resistance from the encroachers assisted by poachers and criminal elements taking shelter in the encroahed areas and chaporis; (iii) Indirect political interference during eviction drives.”

The political mud-slinging or rather the blame game which has already started only adds weight to the CAG viewpoint.

“Right now the Kaziranga has gone to the background. The government is seeking publicity as it so far failed to manage the affairs in the state. This is a tactic to divert attention. Hasn’t Australia and UK cautioned their citizens against travelling to Assam in an advisory over the prevailing situation?” Gaurav asked.

Questions are also being raised at some quarters that if the people evicted were of doubtful citizenship. The Gauhati High Court in a July 2015 order had directed that “The Superintendent of Police(Border), Nagaon shall also make verification of the Nationality of the encroachers in the 2nd, 3rd and 5th Additions. The compliance report to be submitted by 12-08-2015.”

“If the government is doubtful about the citizenship why not identify the illegal ones and deport them?” Gaurav said.

With most of the evicted families belonging to a particular community, there was an undercurrent of tenseness although Sarma said that there was “no communal issue in Kaziranga”.

The Lok Sabha MP did not deny that there is an underlying concern although it was largely a political take.

“BJP is a party that is run by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The fear is that the affiliate organisations of the RSS might create a communal disharmony,” Gaurav said, adding, “Had we been in power we would have prepared a much smoother way to implement the order. We won’t have made people refugees in their own state.”

Bengaluru demolition drive: As BBMP efforts enter second month, here’s what it should focus on

In the background of the entire nation’s focus on the Cauvery River water protests in Karnataka, the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) has quietly renewed its demolition drive, which began in July.

BBMP’s demolition drive has been targeting encroachments on lake beds and rajakaluves or storm water drains (SWDs) after heavy rains flooded south west Bengaluru end of July. Nearly 600 houses were submerged after the city recorded 250mm of rain, the highest in more than five decades. The government had faced severe criticism that it was doing nothing to prevent flooding and stop the encroachments on lake beds and SWDs and the BBMP launched the demolition drive soon after.

But, what is amazing is that BBMP, which is normally known for its lethargy, has continued its demolition drive into the second month, stopping only for national holidays and festivals. It has already razed some 200 homes and structures, of the 1,923 encroachments identified. It has not deviated from its focus nor stopped its demolition drive after a mere tokenism.

Firstpost reached out to V Ravichander, Chairman and Managing Director, Feedback Consulting who is part of the three-member expert committee to restructure the Bangalore City Corporation. He told us, “the BBMP’s continued determination is to basically follow through the July directive of chief minister Siddaramaiah to clear vulnerable areas that were prone to flooding. I will reserve my judgement of BBMP’s credibility until the whole campaign is over.”

But, having said that, Ravichander added, “as long as BBMP’s broad intent is maintained and neither the high nor the low are spared, they would be sending a clear message to the future, that if you violate the law, we’ll proceed against you.”

What is interesting, is that the BBMP has been seen targeting the big builders too. Karnataka Law Minister TB Jayachandra told reporters after a recent Cabinet meeting, that nobody would be spared and that malls, high-rise buildings and apartment blocks built illegally on storm water drains would be demolished. Soon, an FIR was filed against 20 officers and six builders for corruption by the Bangalore Metropolitan Task Force under the direction of the BBMP. The officers booked were BBMP and Bangalore Development Authority (BDA), both serving and retired officials for granting clearances over the years.

However, some of the influential members were able to get re-surveys ordered on the encroachments. Orion Mall and Prestige Tech park which came under the BBMP’s scanner got a reprieve when a re-survey was ordered to confirm their encroachments. A re-survey was also ordered on actor Darshan’s home and a Congress leader’s home, both of which came under the encroachment scanner.

Bangalore Metropolitan Task Force (BMTF) at work in Bengaluru. Image Courtesy: bmtf.gov.in

Bangalore Metropolitan Task Force (BMTF) at work in Bengaluru. Image Courtesy: bmtf.gov.in

Ravichander said, “Although a re-survey seems like a sign of influence, we also don’t have enough data to show the encroachments. So, sometimes a re-survey is needed.” But, as he says, if after the –resurvey, it’s proved that the builder or the influential owner had encroached upon the SWDs, then the BBMP must act.

Ravichander also feels that there is a need to now step back and rethink whether the demolition drive is the only way to go about clearing flood prone areas. ‘There have been incidents when even after clearing encroachments in past years, the flooding of the areas did not stop. We should rethink watershed management, associated rajakaluve (storm water drains) and streams, continuity between tanks, land cover within watershed and mobility networks. This will help us avoid flooding and minimize demolition.”

This does make sense, as many public properties, like bus stands, golf courses, playgrounds and residential colonies have been built on lake beds. Can the government really go back that far back into the past and change the topography of Bengaluru? Is it feasible?

But, with the Damocles sword hanging over their projects, some 250 big builders met under the Confederation of Real Estate Developers Associations of India (CREDAI) banner in end August, and reiterated that their projects had the approvals, sanctions and occupancy certificates and there had been no violations from their side.

Meanwhile, there has been much angst over the maps that BBMP has been basing the demolitions on — the 1902 mother document, updated to 1962 revenue maps. Builders have questioned the maps being used by the BBMP, saying that there was a lot of confusion between the revenue maps and BBMP’s Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP) of 2015.

Why doesn’t the BDA trust its own CDP? Were the rajakaluves diverted by conniving officers on the behest of wily builders, so that their projects looked legally tenable, is that why BBMP is relying on old revenue maps? BBMP has now put up maps across the city on its website detailing encroachment violation on rajakaluves and warning people to remove them.

Clarifying the question of the maps, Ravichander says “the CDP document is mainly a land use document and does not specify SWDs alignment and thus is not a legal document. It also contains a clause that in case of dispute, the mother document had to be referred to, which are the revenue maps.”

Ravichander is now working on combining all the various documents available – the map layers planned for public viewing, village maps, storm water drains, CDP 2015, contour maps, vulnerable areas and ward boundaries.

In Bengaluru, encroachment is one of the main reasons for the near disappearance of the wetlands in and around Bengaluru. So shocking is the condition of the lakes in and around Bengaluru that only some 17 healthy lakes exist today. At one time, Bengaluru was referred to as the city of 1000 lakes.

Both the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and the Supreme Court has come down heavily on builders in Bengaluru. The NGT directed civic authorities to demolish or disallow any further construction around 75 metres from a lake and 50 metres around primary storm water drains. The Supreme Court concurred with NGT and asked builders in the buffer zones of Bengaluru’s lakes and wetlands to push back their projects 75 metres from the edge of these water bodies and refused to halt demolitions initiated by BBMP.

So, what is the next step for BBMP?

To ensure that its demolition drive is not mere tokenism and spare no-one, high or low.
To freeze the maps which it is using to decide how far back into the past it will go to decide on encroachments.
To re-build the rajakaluves and clear the silt in the existing SWDs so that rainwater can flow freely through the SWDs.
To maintain the 68 lakes still existing and recover as many of the 261 lakes that have been encroached upon since 1961.

World Culture Festival: Sri Sri served with two contempt notices for violating NGT orders

New Delhi: Spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was, on Tuesday, served two contempt notices for violating the orders of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), with regard to the World Culture Festival he organised on the banks of the Yamuna in March 2016.

The court has accepted the pleas of main petitioner, Manoj Misra, and another environmentalist Anand Arya, to club the contempt cases to a single case that will come up for hearing on 25 May, an NGT official told IANS.

In a related development, the Principal Bench of NGT headed by Justice Swatanter Kumar has pulled up the Principal Committee appointed by it to assess the damage caused to the fragile Yamuna floodplains because of the World Culture Festival (WCF) for not submitting its report even after the deadline for it has expired long go. The WCF was held on 11-13 March and attended by lakhs of people.

“Everything that comes to you has got stuck. Why have you not prepared the report,” Justice Kumar asked the committee during the proceedings of the case.

The NGT had on 9 March constituted a ‘Principal Committee’ comprising officials from the Delhi Pollution Control Committee, National Pollution Control Board, ministry of environment and forest conservation, and the union water resource ministry to assess the damage caused to the Yamuna floodplains.

File image of Sri Sri Ravishankar. Image courtesy: Art of Living websiteFile image of Sri Sri Ravishankar. Image courtesy: Art of Living website

File image of Sri Sri Ravishankar. Image courtesy: Art of Living website

In a case filed on Tuesday, Anand Arya accused Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of “wilfully disregarding and violating the NGT order passed on 9 March this year by releasing enzymes into the River Yamuna”.

In his application, Arya has referred to a verdict passed by the NGT itself where it had “prohibited any person from throwing pooja material or any other material like food-grain, oil, etc into River Yamuna”.

“It is abundantly clear that the enzymes have been released into the drains going up to Yamuna and the Yamuna itself which was pre-meditated and in utter disregard and violation of the judgment,” Arya said.

The Art of Living foundation claimed that it had prepared “totally organic enzymes with brown sugar, kitchen green waste and water in over a period of three months” to cleanse polluted water, which the AoL used to clean the nearby Barapullah drain.

Arya also accused the foundation of going against its own undertaking to the NGT.

According to the environmentalist, the AoL had “given an undertaking to the Tribunal that it will not release any kind of enzymes into river Yamuna, its tributaries or any water bodies without obtaining due permission of the Central Pollution Control Board and Delhi Pollution Control Committee”.

Manoj Misra, in his application to the NGT Tuesday, said that Sri Sri has flouted the court orders by terming the Rs.5 crore environment penalty imposed by the Green Tribunal on him as “politically motivated”.

“The Applicant came across various news articles in the last few days wherein the Chairman of Art of Living has given a statement that the National Green Tribunal’s decision to fine the Foundation Rs.5 crore for allegedly causing environmental damage was politically motivated,” Misra said in his application filed through his counsel Sanjay Parikh.

The Art of Living has termed both the applications as “baseless”.

“At the NGT proceedings, it was specifically pointed out by the Art of Living that applications filed by Anand Arya and Misra were based merely on newspaper reports and that the tribunal ought not to entertain the same,” the foundation said in a written statement shared with the IANS.

Gautam Vig, Director of the foundation, told IANS that the allegations about Sri Sri Ravi Shankar giving statements against the NGT were “totally misconceived and false”.

He said the video of the Sri Sri’s speech “was available with Art Of Living which can demonstrate that the allegation was completely false”.

Vig said, “the NGT has said that if Mishra’s allegations are found without credible basis, strict action would be taken in accordance with law”.

NGT raps Delhi police for inaction against old vehicles, air pollution

New Delhi: The National Green Tribunal rapped the Delhi Police asking why it has not taken any action against vehicles more than 15 years old from plying on the roads in the national capital.

“Why do not you (police) take action against 15-year-old vehicles which are plying on roads here? What have you done so far? Why do not you challan them?” a bench headed by NGT Chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar asked.

Responding to it, the police told the bench that they have challaned around 1,000 such vehicles and have also started to impound them.

The bench was also informed by the petitioner that only diesel taxis were impounded in pursuance to Supreme Court’s order which had on April 30 refused to extend deadline fixed for conversion of diesel taxis plying in national Capital into less-polluting CNG mode.

To this, the bench asked the police, “Are there any petrol vehicle more than 15 years old which you have impounded.” It asked the police to furnish by tomorrow the entire data of vehicles challaned and impounded by it.

During the hearing, the bench also pulled up the Delhi government over the issue of pollution from dust and municipal waste burning.

Action needs to be taken against vehicles older than 15 years plying on the road. Representational image. PTI

Action needs to be taken against vehicles older than 15 years plying on the road. Representational image. PTI

“What NCT of Delhi is doing about dust and municipal waste burning? We have told your (government) Chief Secretary to hold meeting and finalise a plan for it,” the bench said.

The advocates appearing for the government and the civic agencies told the bench that they were taking steps in this regard after which the green panel asked them to file complete details before it and fixed the matter for hearing tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the bench asked Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) about the data of ambient air quality in Delhi recorded during the recently concluded second phase of odd-even scheme.

CPCB’s advocate informed the bench that data was “under compilation” and they would furnish it soon.

The NGT had yesterday taken Delhi government to task for its failure to implement its order banning vehicles more than 15 years old from plying on the roads here.

It had also slammed the government over incidents of waste burning and dust pollution in the national capital.

Earlier, the tribunal had asked Delhi government and other authorities to create awareness about air pollution caused by vehicular emissions and burning of municipal solid waste and issue advertisements on the lines of the odd-even scheme.

Art of Living seeks NGT nod to submit bank guarantee instead of compensation

New Delhi: The Art of Living (AOL) Foundation is seeking the National Green Tribunal’s permission to submit a bank guarantee rather than paying in cash Rs.4.75 crore as “environmental compensation” for causing damage to the Yamuna floodplain by organising a festival there.

The move by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s AOL has been described by an environmentalist as “yet another attempt to frustrate the efforts to bring it to account for the damage it caused to the Yamuna floodplains” in Delhi.

The next hearing of the case by National Green Tribunal (NGT) is scheduled on Monday. It is based on complaints that AOL violated environmental laws by organising the World Culture Festival on the Yamuna floodplain from 11 to 13 March.

The NGT on 9 March had allowed the festival organisers to go ahead, but imposed on the AOL an “environmental compensation” of Rs.5 crore which had to be paid before the start of the event.

Preparations for the AOL event. Naresh Sharma/FirstpostPreparations for the AOL event. Naresh Sharma/Firstpost

Preparations for the AOL event. Naresh Sharma/Firstpost

After AOL failed to pay up, the tribunal relaxed that order on 11 March by allowing it to pay Rs.25 lakh immediately — which the foundation did — and the remainder in three weeks’ time.

In a “miscellaneous application” filed on Friday at the NGT, the AOL sought permission to submit a bank guarantee instead of paying Rs 4.75 crore.

The AOL also sought permission to assist the NGT to determine if any damage has happened on the ground as a result of the World Culture Festival.

Environmentalist Manoj Misra, who had first approached NGT against the festival, said the AOL is once again defaulting on its obligation by moving such an application.

“By yet again defaulting on not making the payment of Rs.4.75 crore within the time limit and seeking its extension (on the very last day on 1 April) to submit only a bank guarantee is in contravention of not only the NGT direction dated 11 March, 2016 but also its own undertaking given to the NGT in the matter,” said Misra.

It is a brazen attempt to further frustrate the efforts of the NGT to bring AOL to account for what it has done in the Yamuna floodplain, he said.

“That the floodplain at the site has been devastated is for the whole world to see and has been validated by a number of river experts. This fact has already been adjudicated by the NGT and resultantly the AOL and the relevant government agencies have been faulted and fined and disciplined by the NGT,” Misra added.

Neeri scientist in a spot after declaring World Culture Festival did no harm to Yamuna

New Delhi: National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (Neeri) has distanced itself from the comments made by one of its senior scientific officers, Rakesh Kumar, who gave a clean chit to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living (AOL) Foundation for organising a three-day World Culture Festival (WCF) on Yamuna floodplains in Delhi recently.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. AFPSri Sri Ravi Shankar. AFP

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. AFP

The comments made by chief scientist and head of Neeri’s Zonal Lab Mumbai, Rakesh Kumar in the media mentioning that no damage had been caused to Yamuna floodplains due to the festival conducted by AOL Foundation have raked up controversy. The environmental activists working for the cause of river Yamuna have questioned Neeri on the grounds that led Kumar to conclude that no damage was caused to the Yamuna river floodplain.

Recently, an article in Firstpost (20 March) titled ‘World culture festival didn’t damage Yamuna floodplain, says Neeri expert giving Art of Living clean chit’, quoted Mumbai-based Kumar saying, “No real damage appears to have been done to the river or the floodplains.”

Meanwhile, Neeri has sought explanation from Kumar for making a public statement, which is against the norms of the organization.

Neeri is an environmental research institute of national importance and is a part of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which has been created and funded by government of India, and is headquartered in Nagpur.

Tapas Nandy, acting director of Neeri told Firstpost, “Neeri has nothing to do with this case or any study if being undertaken by Rakesh Kumar during the WCF or with his statements appeared in the media. This organisation didn’t conduct any survey or study on Yamuna floodplains during the festival.”

“No official permission was taken by Kumar. Neither any of my colleagues nor I had any information about his visit to WCF. I came to know about it from an outsider after the article got published and the next day I shot an explanation mail to him. But till now, I haven’t received any response from Kumar. We’ve given him a working day to respond, but now we’ll take necessary step. His statement in the media on whether any damage had been caused to Yamuna floodplains due to the festival came to me as a surprise,” said Nandy.

Rakesh Kumar’s comments on WCF

• I didn’t see any damage to the river due to the pontoon bridge,” he said. In any case, pontoon bridges are very common in the north. On the issue of the use of the army, the AOL has already said the Delhi government requisitioned the forces to ensure safety of the participants.

• I visited the venue on the second day in a police vehicle and even though it was an SUV, the tyres sank in the mud due to the rain. There was no compaction of the kind that could have a lasting effect. They would have perhaps laid some rubble where vehicular movement was anticipated but even at those places, the ground was very muddy beyond a point.

• The seven-acre dais rested on itself; it had no foundation in the river or the riverbed, a fact that led to concern among some sections of the media that the stage would cave under the weight of thousands of performing artistes and attendees. It was built over-ground, of scaffolding material, with a shuttering plate beneath scaffolding and wooden boards on top. The stage held for the three days of the festival… no digging was undertaken.

• No real damage appears to have been done to the river of the floodplains.

Environmentalists raise red flag; write to Neeri

Even as environmentalists have slammed Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s WCF terming it an ecological disaster, the one-day flying visit of Kumar, an environmental scientist, has raised doubts on his intention to do so, without any prior permission from his own organisation. Especially, when the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that has slapped an initial fine of Rs 5 crore on AOL Foundation and constituted a probe panel of experts to do a post-event review of the festival site.

Paritosh Tyagi, former chief, Central Board of Pollution Control remarked, “There’s no doubt that damage has been caused to floodplain due to use of manual work and machines to flatten the plain and compaction for making roads, platforms etc. It’ll reduce the recharging capacity of groundwater, which is of immense importance. Opening Yamuna floodplain to such events is damaging and wrongly conceived. It’s not possible to review the impact by making a single day visit to the venue.”

Meanwhile, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, a consortium working for restoration of river Yamuna has written to Neeri questioning the authenticity of Kumar’s statement.

Manoj Mishra, convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan said, “We’ve written to Neeri to know about its involvement and whether it had conducted any study during the festival by deputing Rakesh Kumar. Unless this fact is confirmed, it would be incorrect to bring in Neeri as an institution into the matter. Neeri has expertise in environmental engineering, and it is not an institution with any in-depth scientific capacity to study rivers as ecological entities including the importance of ecological sensitivities involved with river flood plains. It’s most unlikely that the person in question has any expertise or mandate to assess ecological damages that have resulted from the event in question. Moreover ecological damages in such matters occur as much during the process of carrying out any construction activity as much from the construction itself or the high footfall during the event.”

Letter to NEERI Director

The said article giving clean-chit to AOL has prominently been displayed on the home page of the websites of The Art of Living and its branches.

Anand Arya, an environmental expert remarked, “A walk through when the function is on is hardly a scientific way of making any kind of assessment. He himself says he was there for a limited period. It’s irresponsible of any individual to rope in the name of an institution (Neeri) when there is no assignment given to that institution and also to the person. The Neeri scientist has blindly supported the AOL’s event, asserting it has not damaged the river or the floodplains in any tangible way, let alone in the long term. Are these statements based on some proper study or research?”

A few unanswered questions

• In what capacity Kumar visited AOL’s WCF in Delhi on 12 March?
• If he wasn’t representing Neeri, why did he conduct the study, on whose behalf and to prove what?
• If he wasn’t representing Neeri, how did he visit the venue in a police vehicle — SUV (by his own admission)?
• “Compaction is done to keep it stable. It is not critical to the environment unless it’s done for, say, water tanks… I did not see any construction-related compaction” – As the festival was in full swing, with lakhs of visitors around, how could Kumar conduct such a detailed and in-depth study on compaction and its effect?
• There were no semi-permanent structures anywhere. Everything built was temporary and that could be easily dismantled.
• “I didn’t see any damage to the river due to the pontoon bridge.” In the midst of the festival, when the entire area was under decoration and the pontoon bridge was in place on the river, how could Kumar conclude that there was no damage to the river? What technical examination did he conduct?
• How could Kumar say with such conviction that no digging was done? Did he visit the venue prior to the event? Evidences have already been presented before the NGT that iron poles and mechanical structures were erected by digging the ground.

The calls made and the SMSes and email sent by Firstpost to Kumar have not been responded to.

Clout of Living: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s controversial World Culture Festival kicks off in New Delhi

By Padma Rao Sundarji

In an hour from now, two spanking new pontoon bridges – assembled across the Yamuna in no time by our sturdy army jawans at the order of the Government of India – will be thrown open. For the next three evenings, about 5 lakh residents of Delhi and neighbouring Noida are expected to stream across to witness the World Culture Festival (WCF) hosted by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living (AoL) meditation and wellness program, on the highly fragile floodplains of the dying river.

New Delhi: Artists rehearse on the eve of the three-day World Peace Festival being organised by Art of Living Foundation in New Delhi on Thursday. PTINew Delhi: Artists rehearse on the eve of the three-day World Peace Festival being organised by Art of Living Foundation in New Delhi on Thursday. PTI

New Delhi: Artists rehearse on the eve of the three-day World Peace Festival being organised by Art of Living Foundation in New Delhi on Thursday. PTI

If public opinion had had its way, the Big Bash may not have taken place, at least not at this venue. But the National Green Tribunal (NGT) yesterday gave it a green signal with a caveat: that the AoL Foundation pay Rs 5 crore, the first instalment of a hefty fine for not seeking the Tribunal’s clearance in time, before the first gate at the event is thrown open.

The controversy around the WCF has already taken casualties. President Pranab Mukherji is staying home. Zimbabwe’s controversial president Robert Mugabe -known in his country as a ‘serial traveller’ for his penchant for lavish trips at tax-payers’ expense – flew all the way to India but took the next plane back home, citing ‘inadequate security’. Many other international statesmen and guests may not show up too. We shall know when the WCF’s parallel daytime event – its ‘Global Leadership Forum’ (GLF) – begins on Saturday morning.

Whatever the Zimbabwean head of state may have cited as a reason for his returning home prematurely, the attendance of international VIPs has ensured a posse of sniffer dogs and the presence of more than 5000 policemen of the already resources and staff-strapped Delhi Police. Thousands of their counterparts of the traffic wing will be working 16-18 hours days over the weekend too.

It cannot escape the notice of even the less-religiously inclined BJP voter, ie, the so-called ‘centrist’, that Hindu religious functions and rituals have proliferated, ever since the party came to power with an overwhelming majority in 2014. Indeed and though their bashes have always been carefully peppered with the Ram-Robert-Rahim formula: Bollywood’s tried and tested masala created to promote ‘secularism’ , the top-note of AoL’s functions remains markedly ‘Hindu’,

At the WCF too, spiritual leaders swathed in veshtis, kanduras, keffiyehs and cassocks will cast their benign gaze upon African drummers, Turkish dervishes and Bharatanatyam nayikas and their dizzying display of ‘universal brotherhood’ . It is hoped that this artistic oneness will intoxicate thousands in the audience, make them realize just how like each other they are and – fervently swear to end all conflict, hunger and poverty on earth.

No harm in dreaming, of course. And no doubts at all in the fact that AoL has successfully packaged and marketed its cross-cultural potpourri around the world for decades. More power to what is essentially a Made in India product.

So why, then, does widespread annoyance still persist, especially among those resident in Delhi, over this event?

Can it be the usual knee-jerk reaction of our urban, western-educated chatterati against anything even remotely ‘Hindu’? No.

Why, even the Congress – usually the instigator of that familiar patellar twitch – is relatively silent, at least on that score, preferring to point to the larger issue of potential damage to Delhi’s already dying lifeline, the Yamuna, on whose floodplains a gigantic tent city of carpets, gilded domes, chabootras and papier mache elephants has sprung up overnight (after chopping trees, razing vegetable crops grown by poor, subsistence farmers on rented pattas and dangerously compacting 1000 acres of floodplain earth) instead.

“There is a disconnect,” Congress MP Shashi Tharoor explains. “Between the sad state of the Yamuna and the organization of an event on its bed that causes such environmental damage, indeed devastation.”

(Of course the same Congress under Delhi’s Sheila Dixit government thought nothing of building the swank CWG housing complex or the DTC bus depot on the Yamuna floodplains many years ago, but that’s another matter)

Is it the damage to the river bank that is bothering us then? Hardly.

There is not a single Indian who is not aware of the limitless and perhaps irreversible – savagery we have committed upon all our rivers, especially the holiest Ganga and Yamuna, over -at least – the 100 years of rapid industrialization. The Yamuna continues to be the dumping stream for animal carcasses, industrial effluents, disease-carrying hospital wastes, bio-degradable plastic, fibre-glass, E-Waste, PVC religious statues and toxic chemical byproducts. Indeed, the countless ‘Action Plans’ drawn up by various governments too, have seemingly floated to the bottom of the river bed, along with other garbage.

So what is it then, that is leaving this bitter taste in Indian mouths about this event? The order of the NCT itself? After all, that would be in keeping with the current fashion of trashing and disrespecting judicial verdicts.

Not even that. For good or bad, the order has been passed and the event will go ahead. Noam Chomsky, Amartya Sen and Arundhati Roy have not put down their contempt for our courts in writing. (Yet).

The World Culture Festival has annoyed millions of ordinary Indians and given the AoL’s otherwise impeccable reputation a bad name for a simple but very familiar reason : the audacity of privilege. AoL’s incomplete application for permission has received extraordinary, kid-gloved treatment and handling at the hands of all the authorities it has passed through.

Be it the Congress, the AAP or the BJP, each and every party vows to put an end to ‘VIP culture’. The proverbial old man in the dhoti and calloused feet, fighting for 20 years in a lower court to get his pension, has repeatedly fallen for that assurance and voted for whoever promised that relief.

But the silken-smooth facilitation of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s soiree by at least one concerned body, the Delhi Development Authority (and therewith the Ministry of Urban Development to which it reports) with no questions asked, the instruction to the army to build bridges for what is essentially a private party and the stentorian orders issued to Delhi Police to ensure security to it, all prove that VIP privileges are well and alive even 70 years after Independence.

Irrespective of the BJP’s energetically- publicized ‘Swachch Bharat’ and ‘Clean Ganga’ campaigns, the menace of sand mining and indiscriminate construction on river banks all over the country and despite AoL withholding relevant information and bypassing several of the listed procedures to get permission for the event, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s shindig has been cleared by notoriously-slothful sarkari employees (whose tardiness towards ordinary petiitioners is legendary) with breathtaking speed.

Of course it doesn’t take a degree in public administration to know why. For one, because Prime Minister Narendra Modi and almost all senior members of his cabinet will be in attendance. And secondly, because Sri Sri Ravi Shankar seems to have indeed become the BJP’s ‘in-house guru’, as a Congress supporter points out.

Bribes may not have been paid, rules may not have been bent (as nebulous as they are and as stupidly spread over more than a dozen different authorities). Yet, all Indians intuitively know that that the bigger the ticket, the faster even the toughest of clearances.

If there is one thing to criticize about the NGT: it is its permission for the event to take place in the nth minute, despite agreeing with virtually every criticism proffered by the petitioners in its verdict.

Last year, a private event featuring one of the biggest comedy stars in the world, Jerry Seinfeld received permission and then was denied it just two days before the show at the NSCI grounds in Mumbai on flimsy grounds, causing massive losses. But then, what’s a small, 70-man Mumbai entertainment company compared to the mighty Sri Sri Ravi Shankar?

The fast-tracking of VIP demands is so deeply entrenched in our system that Sri Sri’s event has unwittingly brought about a surprising – if temporary – unity between urban liberals and BJP-voting centrists – who usually abuse each other as ‘bleeding-hearts’ and ‘chaddiwallahs’ respectively. For once, everyone is left gasping at the audacity of what Sri Sri has pulled off only because of his reported ‘closeness’ to the establishment.

“When I needed 3 acres of river bed to mount a small Yamuna-Elbe art project jointly sponsored by the governments of India and Germany some years ago, it took me an entire year to get clearance,” says environmental activist Ravi Agarwal. “Yet, here are 1000 acres sanctioned within days.Is this for real?”

Agarwal’s Toxics Link is part of the consortium which petitioned the NGT against the World Culture Festival. He vehemently disputes the criticism that they waited too long to do so, pointing out that it is the usual norm to approach the organizers, in this case AoL, before going to a tribunal. “It is also a question of courtesy since after all, AoL has indeed been doing some admirable social service in so many areas”.

Beginning in October 2015, the petitioners wrote to Sri Sri, PM Modi, the Lieutenant-Governor of Delhi and DDA, pleading with them to reconsider the chosen venue for the event. There was no response. Even the media was informed but remained disinterested, says Agarwal. That is, till the NGT sat up and took notice just weeks before the event. “The fact that this event is taking place only proves the clout that the AoL enjoys in the corridors of power and – an utter disdain for the environment on part of both the central and state government,” says the disgusted activist.

But surely those who support the event as a great idea to “showcase India” are not wrong in pointing out that hardly any damage is likely to be wrought to the river by an event that will last only three days?

“Several studies have shown the flood plain to be a major water recharge area and home to much bio-diversity,” counters Agarwal. “This fact has been ignored. It also shows a lack of knowledge on part of AoL on the specifications of the Yamuna’s floodplains. How can they naively say they will ‘restore it’, when they don’t know what has been destroyed in the first place? Please refer to INTACH and Professor Vikram Soni, a well-known physicist and IIT alumnus. They have researched groundwater contamination on the riverfront. We at Toxics Link have conducted toxicity studies on the river water. Chemicals like paints and cleaning agents that have been used at the site of this grand jamboree, are going to make that worse. Also please don’t forget, the event may end on Monday, but the entire activity of building and dismantling the humongous construction will have totaled months.”

So who’s coming to this expensive jamboree which AoL says vaguely (and irrespective of laws stating that charitable organizations must make their sources of income known) is ‘funded by the people, for the people?” And what does AoL think it will achieve by hosting it?

Apart from a plethora of ‘world musicians and dancers’, there’s, well, Charlie Rose, TV talk show host. Then, the deputy commander of the Fijian Army (from a country that has been under military rule since 2014). There are representatives of the Andean Parliament, one of whom helped decontaminate a local lake and a basin. The list is also studded with lots of loyal supporters of PM Modi like Subhash Thakrar of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who told the BBC way back in 2013 that if (Modi) ‘is a prospective prime minister, then we need to make sure that he is well connected with us before other countries do it.” Once fined heavily for its role as auditors for Satyam computers during the scandal involving the latter in 2009, PriceWaterHouse Cooper will be represented too. Mysteriously, so will Germany’s football world: through a former manager who admitted to using cocaine in 2002 and was later dismissed as trainer of a Turkish football team in 2014. Banks abound – from the World Bank (mysteriously listed in bold as a ‘Strategic Partner’ and deliberately left unexplained by AoL’s spokesman upon FirstPost’s queries) to the commercial Doha Bank to our very own Yes Bank. There are plenty of policy wonks and equally mystifyingly, a great number of experts in’ cyber-security’. There are also Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena and its erstwhile foreign minister Prof GL Peiris, who is currently locked in combat with Sirisena over implementing a trade agreement with India that Peiris’s own government had enthusiastically pursued when former President Rajapaksa was in power. And then there are the usual suspects from Pakistan, always a fixture at any private Indian event which professes to aim at ‘global peace’. Like Pakistani senate member Sherry Rahman who once shuddered on camera about how ‘ugly Indian male politicians’ were. She will have to grin and bear a whole host of them for the coming three days, since practically the entire top-rung (and not so shabby-looking) Modi cabinet will be in attendance.

Unfortunately for Sherry Rahman, there is not a single speaker from the oppositional Congress, not even the extremely erudite and photogenic Jyotiraditya Scindia and Shashi Tharoor. (Global unity and world peace must surely begin at home? Is that possible by excluding the country’s oldest political party altogether ? And surely the best way of proving the BJP’s influence over the organizers?)

“I received an invitation,” says Tharoor. “But as a guest, not as a speaker.”

Finally, let’s ask ourselves what the cultural festival and the ‘leadership summit’ are going to achieve. After all, Woodstock came and went, so did George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh. They neither guaranteed the end of conflicts, nor did they prevent starvation deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.

Will Sri Sri’s Big Bash ensure “world peace”, ‘ethical business’ and ‘universal brotherhood’, at least over the weekend?

Will UK PM David Cameron’s message of ‘peace, harmony and understanding between people of different faiths’ to the Festival guarantee that his country will stop arming Saudi Arabia to continue its bombing of Yemen?

Will the ‘angelic’ Coalition of the Willing – each country of which is represented at the Big Bash on the banks of the Yamuna – stop bombing Syria and Iraq?

Will African internecine wars miraculously cease? Will the ISIS go down on its knees, accept handcuffs and say they are sorry?

Will Al-Qaida and Boko Haram lay down arms and offer red roses?

Will the endless motormouths within the BJP radical fringe, who constantly undercut the achievements of the party leadership through their mindless statements, sew their mouths in contrition ?

Will a contrite Vijay Mallya fly back on Economy to pay Kingfisher employees their dues with interest?

The only person qualified to answer that is the man who after a long and distinguished career as an international diplomat, almost became the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

“There can’t be a co-relation between any such extravaganza and world peace, except to the tangential extent of increasing consciousness on the part of the delegates,” says Shashi Tharoor. “Violators of global peace don’t attend such festivals.”

The author is the former South Asia bureau chief of Der Spiegel.

Tarique Anwar contributed to this story.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar baits critics, agrees World Culture Festival is his private party as ‘entire world is my family’

New Delhi: Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, whose mega event was mired in controversy for violating green norms, on Friday took a dig at his critics for describing the World Culture Festival as his “private party” noting that obstacles do come when something great is done.

Addressing the inaugural session of the three-day event, which was also attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Sri Sri pitched for protecting environment, saying it was in our DNA to “care for and love” nature.

“Somebody said it is the guruji’s private party. I said yes. It is true because entire world is my family. When one needs nothing for himself, then he belongs to the entire society,” he said.

Seen as a one-of-its-kind event, the festival offers a platform for spiritual and religious leaders, politicians, business leaders, peacemakers and artists to spread the message of global peace and harmony in diversity.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. ReutersSri Sri Ravi Shankar. Reuters

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Reuters

The Art of Living had organised a similar peace festival in 2011 to celebrate its 30th anniversary at the historic Olympic stadium in Berlin, the organisers said.

The event here has been embroiled in controversy after environmentalists alleged that its preparations have damaged the ecology of Yamuna flood plains and demanded that it be stopped.

The National Green Tribunal allowed Art of Living to hold the festival but slapped a fine of Rs 5 crore.

In an apparent reference to the legal tussle with the NGT, Sri Sri said, “Many obstacles come when we want to do something great. But it only indicates that we have taken up something very significant.

“Obstacles do not come when something wrong is done. Obstacles do come when something great is to be done. But all those obstacles are removed finally and the end result is very sweet.”

The Art of Living founder told his followers to face with full courage whenever some difficulties come before them.

“Let us care for environment. We love nature. It is in our DNA,” Sri Sri said and hailed the farmers for serving the country through their work.
Sri Sri also talked briefly about the benefits of organic farming and cited an instance of a farmer, whose earning grew up from Rs 40,000 to Rs 4 lakh after switching over to that mode from the traditional one.

On the occasion, several farmers were awarded by Modi, who was welcomed by the spiritual guru as a “very dear Prime Minister”.

Sri Sri also touched upon the ideas of co-existence and diversity.

He cited spirituality as being one among the five things, including art, sports and intellectual debate, which unite people across the world.

At the event, which saw attendance of people from various countries, he said nationals of different places have gathered to give the message that “we are one”.

“Art of Living is a philosophy to live life to its fullest,” he said.

PTI

Sri Sri going to jail is only empty talk; AOL is not even directly involved in culture fest

New Delhi: Only a day remains for Art of Living’s founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to honour the order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to pay a fine of Rs 5 crore for causing ecological damage to Yamuna floodplains for the upcoming World Culture Festival. Will he pay or will he not?

If he does, it’ll be a victory even though partial for the environment fighters in this country. But, if doesn’t, will the ‘godman’ go to jail?

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. ReutersSri Sri Ravi Shankar. Reuters

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Reuters

What the NGT order says

“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 Section 15 and 17 of the NGT Act 2010 we impose an Environment Compensation, initially of Rs 5 crore. The amount would be paid by the Foundation prior to the commencement of the event. This amount would be adjusted towards the final compensation determined to be paid by the Foundation for restoration work.”

The deadline for payment is 5 pm of 11 March.

Will Sri Sri Ravi Shankar go to jail?

By his own admission, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar would prefer to go to jail instead of paying a fine of Rs 5 crore. This is what he had told a news channel after the verdict was passed.

Defying of tribunal’s order may lead to – cancellation of the three-day World Culture Festival (WCF) scheduled to begin on 11 March and imposition of additional fine of up to Rs 10 crore and imprisonment.

But, actually it won’t happen. No way.

“There is no chance of Ravi Shankar going to jail because he’s nowhere in the picture. He knows it well and that’s why he has made this false claim. In our petitions, we made AOL Foundation as the party, but it’s Vyakti Vikas Kendra Trust – a sister concern of the Foundation, which is communicating with us. Any one from this organisation will be made the fall guy, if something goes wrong,” petitioner Manoj Misra, convener, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan told Firstpost.

The front organisation

According to legal experts and environment activists pursuing this case, it is the Vyakti Vikas Kendra Trust—a sister concern of AOL Foundation—which has been acting as the front organisation in this case. Reportedly, the Union Ministry of Culture gave Rs 2.5 crore grant to the Bengaluru-based trust for this culture event on Yamuna floodplains.

“Since it’s this front organisation dealing with the festival, both in terms of receiving government grant and communicating with the petitioners in a ‘benami’ way, Ravi Shankar won’t be held responsible for anything wrong. He knows it well and that’s why this bravado from him. In case the legal axe falls, it won’t be his neck on line, but someone else’s from this front organisation,” remarked legal and social activist, Shehzad Poonawala.

What legal experts say?

Advocate Ritwick Datta, a counsel for the petitioners in this case, told Firstpost, “Under Section 26 of the NGT Act, the violation of NGT order can lead to an imposition of fine of up to Rs 10 lakh and imprisonment. The AOL foundation has the right to move Supreme Court and if the apex court doesn’t accept their plea and no relief is given to them, NGT’s order stands. If the fine isn’t paid tomorrow by the deadline mentioned, the court may order the cancellation of the WCF. People like him never go to jail and his organisation will ensure it doesn’t happen either. Or else it’ll make a dent on this mega PR-driven corporate event.”

“By claiming that he wants to go to jail, Ravi Shankar has used pressure tactic on the court. It’s by someone who’s known to enjoy patronage of the highest executive authority of the country, which also mobilised the Indian Army for the culture event. His AOL is usually about programmes in humility and conciliation but his challenge to NGT smacks of arrogance of power.”

Isn’t it contempt of court?

“Of course. While, Ravi Shankar has the right to challenge the NGT order, his claim to TV channels that he would rather go to jail than pay the fine is nothing but contempt of court and is no less an affront to the majesty of the judicial system as someone claiming Afzal Guru’s hanging was a ‘judicial killing’,” added Poonawala.

Senior counsel of Supreme Court, Sanjay Parikh added, “It’s his (Ravi Shankar) wish whether he wants to go to jail or pay the fine. Law will take its course and if they don’t pay the fine, it’ll be contempt.”

“Ravi Shankar claiming to go to jail on TV channel is nothing but a farce. If he doesn’t pay the initial fine of Rs 5 crore by tomorrow’s deadline, it’ll be contempt of court. Even Delhi High Court has mentioned WCF as an ecological disaster. It’s in connivance with the government that AOL Foundation has been able to do it on such a massive scale. Now, he’s trying to communalise the environment issue by juxtaposing the Batla House case. This is ridiculous,” remarked Vimalendu Jha, executive director, Swechha, an NGO.

“It won’t be surprising if they don’t pay and carry on with the event. They have blatantly flouted all norms and regulation related to environment, including NGT’s order of 2015. Despite having evidences of damaging the floodplains’ ecosystem, Ravi Shankar openly denying it and instead claiming that they have been doing good job on floodplains. The entire event is being organised keeping eye on Nobel Peace Prize that Ravi Shankar wants to have and getting this WCF on Guinness world record,” added environment activist and petitioner Anand Arya.

Despite several calls and messages the AOL Foundation’s lawyers were not available for a response.

World Culture Festival: Why Art of Living won’t have it easy explaining its stand to NGT

Whether Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living (AOL) Foundation eventually succeeds in holding its ambitious World Culture Festival (WCF) 2016 on the floodplains of river Yamuna in Delhi is debatable, but one thing is certain: it’ll not find it easy to explain its position to the National Green Tribunal (NGT).

It’s the NGT that recommended a fine of Rs 120 crore on AOL Foundation for causing damage to Yamuna floodplains and it posed tough questions to the representatives of the AOL Foundation and the government agencies at the NGT court on Tuesday.

At the hearing, the respondents (mainly government agencies) either contradicted their earlier statements or failed to justify why they granted the necessary permissions for the three-day event to AOL Foundation.

Here’s a glimpse into what happened at court:

NGT to AOL Foundation

(A) On DDA’s permission to organise the festival on Yamuna floodplains
NGT: DDA gave you permission, then it was revoked, and later it was again granted. Could you please tell how AOL Foundation convinced DDA to get the permission again?
AOL Foundation (vague in its reply): No reason was cited. We again applied and permission was granted with a few conditions attached by the DDA. What changes on ground that led to the permission is not known, but we’ll present it tomorrow.
[Note: Originally, the permission wasn’t given by the DDA due to a standing prohibition order of the NGT not to hold any kind of event on Yamuna floodplains.]

(B) On number of visitors attending the festival

Screengrab of the websiteScreengrab of the website

Screengrab of the website

NGT: Without any confusion, give us the exact figure of the number of visitors attending the event. Numbers have differed every time: one number was given to the court and another was quoted in the advertisement.
AOLF: The estimated number is three lakh. It will be between two and three lakh.
[Note: However, the AOL Foundation on its official website has claimed that 3.5 million (35 lakh) people from 155 countries are expected to congregate at the World Culture Festival.]

(C) On Environment Impact Assessment of the project
NGT: Did you conduct any environment impact assessment?
AOLF: Not on paper, but we had meetings with various ministries and officials.

(D) Regarding permission
NGT: Delhi Police and the fire brigade haven’t yet granted permission to WCF.
AOLF: Permissions from most authorities have been taken. Permission from the police and the fire brigade will be taken once the stage is ready.

(E) On construction
NGT: Can’t a temporary construction on the ground be considered as a ‘construction’?
AOLF: It’s temporary by nature and eco-friendly materials have been used.
NGT: How can a stage (structure) of 40 feet high and equally large in size remain erect without digging the ground to fix poles using boulders, compaction of floodplains, levelling etc?
AOFL: No concretisation was done and mud used for levelling. Used plates to hold the poles of the structure (But there was no clarity on whether digging was conducted or not].
[Note: NGT asked the authorities concerned, including the DDA, whether they ever visited the venue after they gave the permissions and once construction began.]

Questions NGT asked various government agencies

The preparations at the AOLF event. Naresh Sharma/FirstpostThe preparations at the AOLF event. Naresh Sharma/Firstpost

The preparations at the AOLF event. Naresh Sharma/Firstpost

On pollution: What about the pollution that would be caused because of the emission from thousands of vehicles used by attendees to arrive at the venue?
On construction of Pontoon bridges and ramps: On what basis was permission? Did any government agency conduct inspections during construction?
On impact of the event on the environment: Did any of the authorities — DDA, National Capital Territory, UP government, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Ministry of Water Resources, etc — consider the impact of this mega-event on floodplains, the environment, the river?
Why is Delhi Pollution Control Committee’s (DPCC) permission not needed?
DPCC’s lawyer Biraja Mahapatra reasoned that since it’s a cultural festival unlike any industrial activity, no permission of DPCC was needed.
The NGT disagreed, stating that the event will have repercussions on the environment with vehicles adding to pollution levels. Mahapatra then said the DPCC would revisit the original application of AOLF and get back to the NGT during the next hearing on 9 March.
It came as a surprise to the NGT when many of the agencies revealed that they were not aware of the size of the festival and the area it would cover while granting permission.

What environmental activists say:
Anand Arya, one of the petitioners against AOLF and DDA, told Firstpost, “DDA raised objections to AOLF’s application because the said venue is a 25-year floodplain line and as per the NGT, it’s sacrosanct. No celebrations can take place over there. Now the organiser has to tell the tribunal on what basis they again got permission after cancellation.”

The environment expert added, “It’s surprising to find government agencies unaware of the size of the festival. How can they give permission without having a detailed plan of the mega event? Moreover, the damage that would be caused to Yamuna bio-diversity that was built over centuries can’t even be imagined. Now the AOLF has reduced its visitors from 35 lakh to 3 lakh! Even if permission is given on the basis of 3 lakh visitors and if the number swells up, are they prepared to handle any mishap?”

“It seems to be a case of connivance between the DDA and AOLF, because despite having a standing order from the NGT, permission was granted to hold this mega event,” another activist said on condition of anonymity.

What AOL Foundation says:

“Allegations have been levelled against us for violating environmental norms. Before we began, we put applications to relevant authorities, seeking permission. We’ve written to the Ministry of Environment and DPCC – both the agencies are top most as far as environment issue is concerned. Rest, we’ll present before the NGT tomorrow,” said AOL Foundation’s counsel Akshama Nath.

What next?
Petitioners, organiser of WCF and government agencies are waiting to hear the verdict from NGT after the hearing on 9 March.

[Disclaimer: The story carries only the essence of day’s proceedings at the NGT and is not a verbatim representation.]

Where’s the ‘art’ in living like this? Sri Sri Ravi Shankarji, please note how your event is killing the Yamuna

New Delhi: The World Culture Festival of the Art of Living (AOL) Foundation headed by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar threatens to leave the ecologically sensitive and fragile Yamuna floodplains with irreparable damage. Environment activists are shocked over the brazen disregard for the health of the dying river, which holds a significant place in the Hindu mythology, from the organisers. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has already recommended a fine of Rs 120 crore on them for violation of ecological norms but it has hardly deterred preparations. The three-day international event, which is expected to attract 35 lakh visitors from across the globe, begins from 11 March.

Why NGT finds it alarming

This is what the report of a four-member committee of the NGT led by Shashi Shekhar, secretary, ministry of water resources, has found:

· The entire area of the flood plain between river Yamuna and DND Flyover levelled.
· Small water bodies that existed earlier have been filled up and all natural vegetation has been removed. Most of the trees have been removed or lopped.
· Construction debris dumped on some of the roads constructed along the river margin for the festival.
· Two ramps have been constructed joining the DND flyover with flood plains for providing access to VIPs up to the stage constructed on flood plains.
· One pontoon bridge has been constructed on river Yamuna and another under construction. Few more are proposed on the Yamuna and Barapullah drain (a total of five).
· Parking sites and 650 portable toilets on both eastern and western sides of the river. Thousands of vehicles are expected to be parked.
· An enormous stage (about 1,200 feet long x 200 feet wide x 40 feet high) is being erected with steel pipes, wooden planks and fibre glass domes, where thousands of artistes are expected to perform. The site littered with construction material.
· The western side of the river — 50 to 60 hectares floodplain completely destroyed; natural vegetation comprising reeds, shrubs, trees, etc has been completely removed. Large numbers of birds and other natural life on the floodplain have vanished.

What it sees as the potential long-term damage:

· The site is a meeting point of Barapullah drain and river Yamuna. It’ll get blocked.
· The floodplains where the Yamuna water gets recharged will get damaged.
· The natural life in this bio-diversity region will either move out or perish.
· The birds will leave the place.
· Have cascading effect on nearby Okhla Bird Sanctuary.

Destruction on the banks of the YamunaDestruction on the banks of the Yamuna

“The Yamuna floodplain is a highly sensitive ecological zone. To organise its culture festival, the AOL Foundation has illegally cleared the entire stretch of wetland and marshy area. It’s total devastation and we fail to understand how the person (Sri Sri Ravi Shankar), an apostle of non-violence and spiritualism can allow it,” Manoj Kumar Misra, convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, an NGO working for the restoration of river Yamuna, told Firstpost.

Besides Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, there are several groups who have joined hands and mobilising citizens and activists to oppose the event.

Swechha India, a New Delhi-based organisation working in the field of environmental protection, has launched an online signature campaign ‘Sign the petition: Say NO to World Culture Festival’. Using the platform of change.org, it has petitioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Chief Justice of India, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar urging them to shift the venue and save Yamuna floodplains from being destroyed.

Vimelendu Jha, executive director, Swechha India met Ravi Shankar on Tuesday to personally convince him to call-off the event, but to no effect.

“I had an hour-long meeting with Ravi Shankarji but failed to convince him of the devastating effect the event would have later. They were dismissive and gave strange logic in favour of organising the festival on floodplains. We’ve been working on these floodplains for the past 15 years, but this event will negate all our efforts. We’ve launched an online campaign and fight it till the end,” Jha said.

The Delhi government’s minister for water resources Kapil Mishra, who once took part in saving the Yamuna, has now lent his support to the controversial festival stating it to be a good idea and it would connect lakhs of people with the River Yamuna. Environmentalists have criticised minister’s statement, calling it ‘vote-bank politics’.

“It’s so unfortunate that Kapil Mishra, who took part in the Yamuna Satyagraha a year ago to make Yamuna clean, is now supporting this anti-environment event. It’s all due to vote-bank politics. The Delhi Development Authority, which is supposed to implement the judgment of NGT has given permission to organisers although it doesn’t have the authority to do so,” remarked Misra, a forestry and wildlife expert.

In March 2015, around 1,000 people comprising religious leaders, devotees, farmers and activists had marched from Vrindavan to Delhi to protest against pollution of the Yamuna and launched ‘Yamuna Muktikaran Abhiyan’ (save Yamuna campaign) and the march had ended in Delhi on 22 March on World Water Day. “Now a spiritual guru is organising an event that would completely destroy floodplains of Yamuna. It has violated the court’s order delivered in the past, when a similar event was organised. Declaring it a sensitive zone, the court had ordered a ban on such large-scale events. Our Yamuna, one of the most worshipped rivers in India, exits as a drain in Delhi. It’s Delhi’s lifeline and even a little misstep might turn into a big disaster in the future,” said Jha.

AOL Foundation refutes allegations

“It’s incorrect to say that we’re damaging the floodplains. AOL Foundation, which is equally concerned, has been involved in river and environment conservation projects. In 2010, we organised ‘Meri Delhi, Meri Yamuna’ campaign for the protection of Yamuna, which was followed by the ‘Clean Delhi’ drive. The government has spent crores (of rupees), but the river has turned into a dirty nullah. The vegetables growing on floodplains are poisonous.

“To the best of our knowledge we have taken permission from authorities concerned. This process has been going on for the past seven to eight months, but the NGOs have raised objections only now when hardly 10 days are left for this international festival. Instead of damaging the river and its floodplains, we’ll revive it, green it up,” Rashmi Paliwal, apex member of AOL Foundation told Firstpost.

But, activists are not ready to budge and waiting for the next hearing of NGT.

Read the report by the NGT-appointed Shashi Shekhar Committee below:

Report of Committee Named by NGT – Shashi Shekhar Committee