A committee appointed by the National Green Tribunal has concluded that Art of Living's World Culture Festival, held in March 2016, damaged the ecology of the Yamuna floodplains in Delhi.
The full report of the committee will be handed over to AOLF and other parties in the case shortly.
This conclusion means that AOLF may have to cough up a fine larger than the Rs 5 crore it has already paid. This is because the fine is actually an environment compensation charge, imposed by the NGT when it finds someone guilty of damaging an ecology. The compensation is used for ecological restoration. The Rs 5 crore fine imposed on the AOLF was an interim compensation against which the festival was allowed to take place.
The AOLF will now have to pay the difference between this and the Rs 5 crore already paid, unless the committee pegs the cost to be a lesser amount.
AOLF's World Culture festival landed it in the NGT after environmentalists, led by Manoj Misra of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, claimed that the event caused irreversible damage to the floodplains. They alleged that by flattening the floodplains for its 7-acre stage, parking area and seating space for 3.5 million persons, the AOLF had reduced the area's ability to recharge groundwater and protect Delhi from floods, besides affecting plants, bird and fish species dependent on the floodplains' natural characteristics.
The AOLF has denied that any damage was done. The foundation also filed an affidavit, claiming that the venue location has not been demarcated as a floodplain.
NGT has given the AOLF, Misra and other parties three weeks to respond to the committee's report. The committee was headed by bureaucrat Shashi Shekhar, with ecologists and floodplain experts as members.
The matter will be taken up by NGT on 28 September.
Anand Arya, a Noida-based birdwatcher and one of the petitioners against AOLF, said that the damage to the floodplains is proven by the unusual water stagnation at the location, which is not so in the untouched part of the floodplains.
Arya said that such water stagnation is usually seen when there is excess flow in the Yamuna because of water release from the Hathnikund reservoir. "If water is assumed to cost 15 paisa per litre, this means the city is facing an annual loss of Rs 20 crore because of the loss to groundwater," Arya said.
AOLF spokesperson Jaideep Nath said that the NGT committee is inherently biased because one of its members, CR Babu, gave an interview against the AOLF before the assessment was completed. Nath also referred to a confidential letter sent by the committee's chief Shashi Shekhar to the NGT chairperson, which said that an initial damage cost of Rs 120 crore the committee had come up with was without scientific basis. "We feel there is an inherent bias in the committee, and we stand by this," Nath said.