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Is National Green Tribunal going soft on Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living?

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST

The leniency

  • NGT posted the World Culture Festival matter for 21-22 April, giving Art of Living a 18 day breather
  • AOLF has offered to give a bank guarantee instead of the Rs 25 lakh portion of the fine
  • It is difficult to understand why NGT is being lenient with AOLF

More in the story

  • AOLF\'s delaying tactics
  • What is the reason behind NGT\'s leniency?

It was a good day in courts for the Art of Living Foundation.

The foundation got at least 18 more days to cough up an environmental fine that it was supposed to pay a month ago.

This fine was imposed on 9 March by the National Green Tribunal. It had ordered AOLF to pay Rs 5 crore as an environmental compensation for hosting an event from 11-13 March on the eco-fragile Yamuna river floodplains.

The NGT said the event permanently damaged the floodplains, but allowed it to go ahead against the Rs 5 crore payment. It was to be paid before 11 March.

AOLF head Sri Sri Ravi Shankar publicly refused to pay it, eventually parting with Rs 25 lakh and promising to give the rest by 1 April.

Also read: NGT committee member CR Babu disagrees with approval given to AOL event

This amount has never come. On that day AOLF instead requested the NGT to accept a bank guarantee worth the amount. This is, according to lawyers, unprecedented in NGT's history.

At a hearing on 4 April, the NGT neither allowed nor rejected this offer. It simply posted the matter for hearings on 21 and 22 April.

This 18-day 'relief' has come as a surprise to environmentalists, who expected the NGT to take a strong view of AOLF for disregarding conditions laid down by it.

"It looks as though the judiciary is compromised. The NGT had indicted Art of Living for causing damages. The only condition for allowing the event was that the initial compensation is paid," said Vimlendu Jha, founder of the NGO Swechha and a campaigner against the event.

"Even trial courts are stricter. District Magistrates and Sub-divisional magistrates are perhaps more proactive than the NGT," he added.

Jha also asked why Art of Living did not ask the NGT on 11 March itself if the compensation can be paid by a bank guarantee.

A bank guarantee is a certificate issued by a bank to pay a certain amount to a specific person in the future. The amount is paid if a specific condition is met.

This contrasts the very purpose of the fine NGT imposed. Unlike other fines, it does not simply go to the exchequer.

Under Section 17 of the National Green Tribunal Act, if a specific environment is damaged, then the compensation is meant to pay for its restoration.

Using bank guarantees to postpone payment of a fine is very unusual, said Shibani Ghosh, an environmental lawyer and Fellow at Centre for Policy Research. "Bank guarantees have been permitted in cases as a check against non-compliance of consent conditions imposed by pollution control boards, but I can't think of a precedent where they have been used to avoid paying a fine already adjudicated by the NGT. To effectively compensate, they have to pay the amount now," Ghosh said.

Also read: Saffron trumps green: How 'AOL vs environment' debate turned communal

This is probably why the application by Art of Living asks for a modification to the NGT's 9 March order such that bank guarantees are allowed. So while the order says AOLF should pay the Rs 5 crore, they want it modified to say AOLF can alternately submit bank guarantees worth the amount.

"By requesting to deposit a bank guarantee, they appear to be stalling for time," Ghosh added.

The NGT's leniency with the initial payment has fuelled skepticism whether the entire amount will be actually be paid.

The Rs 5 crore itself was seen as a lenient amount. A few weeks before the event began, an expert panel set up by the NGT surveyed the venue and said the damages were worth about Rs 120 crore.

Delay in assessing the damage

This panel is supposed to visit the venue now give a final figure on how much damage the event has caused. This amount will be added to the Rs 5 crore.

But the assessment itself is getting delayed, as Art of Living has not vacated the site. Its 7-acre stage is still not dismantled.

So, while the assessment was meant to be completed by 7 April, because the venue hasn't been vacated. The expert panel has written to the NGT asking for an extension because of this, NGT chairperson Swatanter Kumar said during the hearings.

The letter also questioned when Art of Living plans to vacate the venue, according to Kumar.

Kumar asked the foundation's lawyers when they plan to vacate. The foundation told the tribunal bench that it will vacate the venue "shortly".

The tribunal also dismissed a review petition filed by the petitioners. When the NGT allowed the event to go ahead, it blamed the petitioners for delay in filing the case. In the review, the petitioners asked the tribunal to review these observations.

The NGT said that since its observations were part of an interim order and not a final judgment, there was no need for a review. Kumar said that while the case is still being heard, the question of whether the petitioners were actually delayed is still open and can be resolved in the final judgment.

An Art of Living spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

Also read: Red flagged: NGT ignored reports citing damage the AOL event would cause

First published: 5 April 2016, 1:29 IST
Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale

Nihar is a reporter with Catch, writing about the environment, water, and other public policy matters. He wrote about stock markets for a business daily before pursuing an interdisciplinary Master's degree in environmental and ecological economics. He likes listening to classical, folk and jazz music and dreams of learning to play the saxophone.