Vedic Dharma Sansthan Trust erected a 60-feet-tall structure in wetland region, which was deemed illegal by the National Green Tribunal
the East Kolkata Wetland was listed as a Ramsar site in 2002 (Photo: Pravash Mallick/Creative Commons)
In a landmark judgement on October 25, 2017, the National Green Tribunal’s Eastern Zone bench ordered demolition of a 60-feet-tall illegal structure enacted by Vedic Dharma Sansthan Trust, a part of the Art of Living Foundation. The building named “Temple of Knowledge” was built illegally by filling up wetlands within the premises of East Kolkata Wetlands, according to the Ramsar Convention on wetlands.
The onus of demolition was put on East Kolkata Wetland Management Authority (EKWMA), the guardian body under West Bengal’s environment department, looking after the protection and management of the wetlands. Despite EKWMA’s repeated notifications to the trust since 2015 on the illicit nature of their work, the construction continued unabated.
Environmental non-profit People United for Better Living in Calcutta (PUBLIC) filed a petition in the NGT in 2016. “Even an FIR was lodged against the trust that is part of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s network but to no avail. Perhaps godmen think they are above the law,” says Suvrajyoti Chatterjee, member, PUBLIC.
The non-profit was instrumental in its declaration as a Ramsar Site in 2002 and obtained the first order to protect the East Kolkata wetlands from the Calcutta High Court in 1992.
The court order
On the October 25, the green court ordered to raze the construction, setting a precedent for EKWMA to carry out the functions vested in it by law—demolishing illegal structures and restoring wetlands.
Violation of other laws meant to protect wetlands also came to light. “Apart from the 3 storied illegal structure, a road was built around Munshir Bheri in Sector V by Nabadiganta Development Authority. Neither had obtained the requisite permission,” says advocate-activist Meghna Banerjee from PUBLIC.
According to Siddharth Mitra, senior counsel appearing for PUBLIC, “Had EKWMA granted permission for change in land-use from wetland to non-wetland purpose, the constructions would still have been in violation of the Central Wetland Rules, 2010.”
While PUBLIC’s original application asked for removal of unlawful constructions and restoration of wetlands to their original status, Justice Wangdi further suggested that the East Kolkata Wetland Act allows for filing criminal charges and therefore directed filing a compliance report with the tribunal.
“In case of non-compliance, we may again approach the court. Now that our petition has drawn the NGT’s attention to EKWMA’s enforcement role, we hope that both surveillance and enforcement should improve and encroachments will reduce, states Banani Kakkar of PUBLIC.
Status of implementation
When contacted, a member of the East Kolkata Wetland Management Authority, who does not wish to be named, informed that a letter was sent to Vedic Dharma Sangsthan Trust to demolish the building within 30 days from the court order. It has been almost a month since, but the trust has not responded. No action has been taken against the road, but the official maintains that the EKWMA is committed to restore the marshes as promised in the court.
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