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12 March 2016 Editorial

 

12 MAR 2016

Respect for nature is devotion

The grandiose spectacle that the Art of Living Foundation has organised on a thousand-acre site on the floodplain of a river in Delhi to demonstrate ‘humanitarianism’ and the oneness of cultures will go down as a spectacular example of thoughtless environmental destruction. The Central and Delhi governments have, in a display of extraordinary non-application of mind, allowed a private entity to take over part of the Yamuna floodplain, an area with well-known ecological vulnerabilities, for a ‘show’. The low priority accorded in recent times to environmental impacts of official decisions is manifest here: large parts of the biodiversity-rich floodplain have been irresponsibly levelled, provision made for approach roads and vehicle parking, and a massive, 40-foot-high stage with garish symbols built for the event. The Union Ministry of Culture, the Uttar Pradesh and Delhi governments, the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the Lalit Kala Akademi and other organisations that have supported the three-day extravaganza should worry that they have lent their credentials to the creation of a large and destructive footprint for the river. The Yamuna is a major resource for Delhi, and there is a great deal of scientific literature on why it should be protected and rejuvenated for the benefit of the national capital region. Studies done on Delhi’s water needs indicate that there are twice as many people living in the city than it can support based on carrying capacity norms. The imperative therefore should be to help the Yamuna use its full potential of recharging its aquifers using monsoon flood flows across a generous one-kilometre width, bringing more precious water to Delhi.

It should surprise everyone that the NDA government, which has been making a high-profile campaign of river-cleansing projects, allowed unregulated construction activity on the Yamuna floodplain and removal of vegetation without so much as a sound environmental impact assessment. Deploying the Army to put up long bridges was also unwarranted. The National Green Tribunal, which heard a petition against the holding of the so-called world culture festival, noted that the Art of Living Foundation had failed to submit even a detailed project report on the works it was undertaking after it obtained permission from the Delhi Development Authority last year. Faced with a Rs.5-crore initial fine imposed by the NGT, the head of the Foundation, Sri Sri Ravishankar, first decided to brazen it out and not remit the penalty, although saner counsel seems to have prevailed. The NGT has rightly ordered an exhaustive review by a special committee of the damage caused to the river and its floodplain. The only option for the Foundation should be to meet the full cost of scientific restoration, consistent with the polluter-pays principle. Having claimed the participation of 3.5 million people from 155 countries, it should not be difficult for the organisers to mobilise the funds needed to restore the ecology of an invaluable part of the country’s natural heritage.

Heeding the spirit of the amendment

For the second year in a row, an Opposition-sponsored amendment to the Motion of Thanks on the President’s Address has been adopted by the Rajya Sabha. Last year, the Motion of Thanks was amended on the issue of black money; this week, the amendment focussed on legislation passed by Bharatiya Janata Party governments in Rajasthan and Haryana limiting the rights of citizens to contest panchayat elections. Before 2015, there were just three occasions on which the President’s Address was amended in the Rajya Sabha, once each during the tenures of Indira Gandhi, V.P. Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The President’s Address sets out a government’s policies and programmes, and is first approved by the Union Cabinet. Should an amendment to the Address be carried through in the Lok Sabha, the government would have to resign. There is, of course, no such obligation in the Rajya Sabha, but it is still seen to undermine the government’s ability at consensus-building. For the members of the Rajya Sabha, it is a way to give notice that they cannot be taken for granted. It is therefore not just an embarrassment for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government to have faced this situation twice less than halfway through its five-year term. It also hints at the ruling party’s failure to reach out to the Opposition and forge a working consensus on the legislative agenda. With its clear majority in the Lok Sabha, the BJP may feel unencumbered by the need for floor management of the sort that ruling coalitions have had to work at over the past couple or decades — this week’s vote shows that its lack of numbers in the Rajya Sabha does in fact demand an inventive outreach to the Opposition if it wants support on important Bills in the Upper House.

The first instance of such an amendment to the Motion of Thanks came in 1980 on the issue of engineering defections. The second was in 1989, when six amendments — including on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute and the India-Sri Lanka accord — were approved. The third occasion was in 2001, when the House adopted an amendment on the sale of a public sector undertaking, Balco, to a private company. These were all politically contentious issues. So was the issue on which the Opposition parties mobilised themselves this year, and it raises vital questions for democracy. Imposing curbs on who may contest panchayat elections based on requirements of educational qualifications and having toilets in homes effectively cuts the underprivileged out of the fray. The BJP could plead helplessness over its lack of numbers in the Rajya Sabha, and instead cite the passage in the House of the Real Estate Bill this week as proof that it is getting on with its legislative workload. Or it could heed the spirit of the institutional mechanism of the amendment to a Motion of Thanks, and take up the subject highlighted for a follow-up debate in Parliament.


 

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