Art of Living event: Role of Green Tribunal in condoning violations of law exposes its structural weaknesses

WCF on Yamuna flood plainsBy Gopal Krishna*

Yamuna faces environmental lawlessness: AOL case exposes NGT’s weakness  March 25, 2016: World Culture Festival (WCF) organised on Yamuna floodplains by Art of Living (AOL) remains in the news because of administration of enzyme into Yamuna River.  All enzymes are proteins with very few exceptions but all proteins are not enzymes. The three dimensional structure of a protein affects it function. Therefore, those factors that denature proteins will reduce the activity of enzymes. These include changes in pH, temperature, and ionic strength.

Enzymes are catalysts. The catalysts act to reduce the amount of activation energy required for a reaction to occur. Many reactions that are thermodynamically possible don’t occur swiftly and may appear that these reactions do not to occur at all due to the requirement of energy to get them started. This required energy is called activation energy. The fact to note is that enzymes increase the rate of a given reaction by reducing the need for activation energy. The properties of enzymes include denaturation which means disruption of the protein’s structure.

Enzymes catalyze specific reactions.  In order to set a scientific inquiry in motion in the matter of introduction of enzymes in Yamuna, the character of enzymes used by AOL volunteers must be disclosed. If the volunteers took samples of water from the Yamuna before and after a few days of enzyme treatment and have found marked difference in the quality of water, AOL should share its documents and findings for further verification.

This scientific experiment merits attention because other researchers can put those enzymes in stretches other than Barapullah drain to compare the results to ascertain its authenticity. If it indeed makes a change in the water quality without any adverse impact it can be helpful in cleaning Yamuna and other water bodies. Such bioremediation measures can help governments to move away from capital intensive treatment plants and adopt such cheaper bioremediation measures that offer possibility of destroying or rendering harmless various contaminants using natural biological activity.

But gnawing doubts remain as to whether such measures can deal with hazardous chemicals and heavy metals too. Caution is needed because alien species of bacteria, fungi or plants can cause havoc in the local ecosystem. The introduction of an alien species can have disruptive or harmful or catastrophic outcomes. This requires assessment prior to such trials adopting the approach of precautionary principle. It will be deemed an unforgivable sin if AOL does not share the chemical composition of the enzymes it has administered in the river. It will set a very unhealthy and unacceptable precedent.

Besides the issue of introduction of enzymes in the water course of Yamuna, the fact that the festival was planned after clearing, compacting, dumping of earth and construction over some 1000 acres of the flood plain of Yamuna and by clearing the reeds and grasses underlines how it has joined the unwise assaults beginning with the construction of samadhis, Akshardham temple, Delhi Secretariat, Millennium Bus Depot, Delhi Metro and Common Wealth Games village that has devastated the flood plains. Floodplain waters contain hundreds of plant and animal species and they are dependent on floodplains. They are ecologically very sensitive. These assaults constitute unpardonable encroachments.

The role of National Green Tribunal (NGT) in condoning the violations of law and its orders exposes its structural weaknesses. From its inception NGT has been one of the weakest public institutions of the country, its decisions in AOL matter does not appear inconsistent with its reputation. It is a classic case demonstrating the dangers of tribunalization of judiciary wherein judiciary has allowed its turf to be encroached upon by the executive. It is noteworthy that the Chairman of NGT in his role as a judge of Supreme Court had authored the order for world’s biggest and most ecologically disastrous project in the “Networking of Rivers” case that involves some 39 rivers of the country including Transboundary Rivers. The next hearing in the matter is on 4th April but its conduct so far does not inspire even an iota of hope.

A ‘technical’ body like NGT has been created in disregard of Supreme Court’s recommendation for specialized environmental courts. A High Court or lower Court might have done a better job.  Some environmental groups which do not desist from hunting with the hare and running with the hound have been gesticulating before NGT without realizing its inherent limitations.  Issues of water quality, water quantity and land use are interlinked because one cannot deal with them as if they are separate from the river basin but this is precisely what is being done. NGT’s approach has been no different. There is no alternative to genuine river basin approach.

Saving Yamuna has to be an integral component of policies, programs and projects on urban, industrial, water, land use, agricultural and energy. In the light of the adverse consequences ongoing amputation of rivers from its basin, there is a compelling logic for environmental groups to call a spade a spade only then we can ensure that the burden on rivers will not grow beyond their carrying capacity. We should no longer live under the illusion that pollution burden can grow to any levels but we’ll somehow build the treatment plants to save our rivers.

The complex of policies which decide how much water will remain in rivers, how many hazardous chemicals are being released, what will be the increase in sewage and industrial pollution are very important and all these issues have to be addressed through radical structural changes. Dancing to the tunes of donors and pandering to institutions which promote status quo has undermined environmental movement.  One critical factor which is not being pondered over is the balance of power between those who are responsible for causing pollution and the communities, particularly riverside communities who can make a real contribution to reducing river pollution.

This balance of power is at present highly biased in favour of the former. The existing system favours polluters rather than those who want to resist and fight pollution. This has to change and the communities who are willing to be involved in monitoring and reducing pollution should be so strengthened that they feel empowered to resist pollution and polluters. Emphasis should be given to ‘community monitoring of environmental health’. Given the fact that rivers are considered sacred by many people, mass mobilisation of people to reduce pollution is possible but World Culture Festival failed like other religious and cultural initiatives.

There have been a few examples here and there to show the potential of people’s mobilisation on this issue. For example, in Punjab one Saint was able to mobilise people and save a sacred water source from pollution. Kali Bein, a 160 km sacred river which was reduced to a filthy drain by six towns and more than 40 villages through community efforts has now been cleaned. It is interesting that he challenged those who opposed him to show any law which gives polluters the permission to pollute water bodies. From available facts available it is clear that for AOL enjoys huge patronage of State’s institutions. It does enjoy the confidence of the communities concerned about Yamuna’s well being. Whenever there is a conflict between the interest of Yamuna and other economic and cultural interests, sanity creates a compelling logic for giving priority to the former.

Pseudo devotees fail to comprehend the sacredness of river and its integrity.  If someone enters our homes without our permission, it is considered trespass which has legal remedy. Industries and religious institutions are letting their pollutants enter our veins and arteries and cause health hazards, gene pool contamination and even deaths but with impunity. The administration of enzymes in Yamuna appears to be an unscientific intervention. It’s a trespass. The relevant public institutions face a litmus test. Their stature will diminish further if they do not intervene in an exemplary manner to set matter right even at this late stage. The terminal decline of public institutions must be arrested to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

The ruling political parties that get funded and promoted by corporate, religious and cultural organization extend mere impotent lip-sympathy to the emotions of people about sacred rivers, but shy away from the wider policy changes that are needed to protect rivers. State funding for political parties for fighting elections along with mobilization of communities alone can stop current ant-river basin practices that threaten Yamuna’s water quality, water availability and the flood plains along with its inhabitants.

*With Toxics Watch Alliance

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