NGT's order on Art of Living is too little, too late
The Art of Living case before the National Green Tribunal is a case of multiple delays.
Today, the NGT ordered the Art of Living Foundation to pay Rs 4.75 crore initial compensation it was charged for hosting the World Culture Festival from 11-13 March. The NGT had held on 9 March that the festival caused permanent damage to the Yamuna floodplain and had ordered AOLF to pay Rs 5 crore as compensation before 11 March.
But the AOLF paid just Rs 25 lakh, promising to pay the remaining Rs 4.75 crore by 1 April. Then, on deadline day, it asked the NGT if it could pay not in cash but as a bank guarantee.
This request was dismissed today, and AOLF has a week to pay the cash.
Issued a day before the NGT goes on summer vacation, the order brings the curtains down on a matter that has languished for over two months.
It finally clears the way for the NGT-appointed expert panel to visit the venue of the festival and scientifically conclude what damage has been done and how much it would cost to restore the ecosystem. AOLF will be billed this amount, in addition to the Rs 5 crore initial compensation.
But all of this - the panel's visit, the final compensation, the payment - was to have been concluded by April.
The delay is partly attributed to AOLF, which threw a spanner in the works by asking to pay the Rs 4.75 crore as a bank guarantee. A bank guarantee is a certificate from a bank that an amount will be paid at a later date when some specific condition is fulfilled.
For Art of Living, this condition was that NGT's expert panel first find out what damage had been done. If the damage was for more than Rs 5 crore, then the bank guarantee would be used up. (AOLF argued that no damage was done, so it wouldn't need to pay the amount at all.)
But the expert panel did not visit the site. Initially, this was because AOLF took nearly a month to dismantle the mammoth structures erected for the festival.
Then, when the panel went to the site in early April, AOLF personnel stopped them from entering the premises. They were later reprimanded by the NGT for this but the panel's chief had written to the NGT stating the difficulty in entering the premises and seeking directions.
This is where NGT's delay comes into picture. Through repeated adjournments in April and May, and hearing over a contempt application within the case, the NGT never gave these directions.
On 25 May, the appellants asked it to issue the same, and it finally told the panel to visit the site and submit its report within two weeks. Today, it asked it to submit the same by 4 July.
The expert assessment could have been further delayed. AOLF had asked yesterday that the panel be changed. This was because it had done a cursory study before the festival and said the damage to the ecosystem amounted to Rs 120 crore. AOLF argued this put the panel under "self-imposed pressure to justify" the amount, and asked for an unbiased panel.
The request was also thrown out.
The NGT also pulled up Art of Living for filing multiple applications and misleading the tribunal. It fined the foundation Rs 5,000 as cost of delay.
"The order vindicates us and proves that Art of Living was hoodwinking the court. On every count they misled the tribunal, giving false assurances that they will pay the compensation amount. This was not expected from an organisation engaged in world peace and such work," said Ritwick Dutta, who appeared for the petitioners.
Nonetheless, the verdict is seen as too little, too late. On both fronts - Art of Living paying the initial compensation amount and the committee estimating the final damage amount - the NGT case languished for nearly two months.
"There are days when the NGT finds its glory. But this has come too late. It has been 80 days since the event happened, and the payment was to be made in 21 days. By April the entire case should have been closed," said activist Vimlendu Jha, who had been campaigning against the festival.
"Our fear is that with above normal monsoons expected this year, the expert assessment would be affected as the floodplains would get submerged," Jha added.