Damning observations by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) on unapproved constructions by the Isha foundation in Coimbatore has put the Tamil Nadu Forest Department on the backfoot.
The CAG alleges that Isha foundation carried out construction in a protected forest area known for its elephant corridor without permission from the Hill Area Conservation Authority from 2005-2008.
"Despite its District field officer from Coimbatore conducting an assessment of the area and observing the violation in February 2012, the Forest Department failed to stop further construction," the report said.
What was the violation?
As per the CAG report, which was tabled in the state Assembly on Monday, the Isha foundation has constructed various buildings in an area of 32,856 sq ft in Booluvapatti village with the permission of the village panchayat. This was between 1994 and 2008.
But this construction was carried on without obtaining a No Objection Certificate from the Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA).
The HACA's duty is to ensure that development on hills is ecologically acceptable. According to a government order in 2003, HACA's approval was a must for construction of commercial and office buildings in the village.
In October 2011, the Foundation requested the Forest department to issue a No Objection Certificate (NOC) and ex-post factor approval.
But in 2012, when an official from the forest department visited the venue, he found that earlier construction of buildings in an area of 11,873 sq m undertaken from 2005-2008 was permitted by the Panchayat without consultation with the HACA.
'Area known for elephant corridor'
'The field assessment report stated that the Foundation continued construction in the area despite issue of notices by the Forest department in February and April 2012 on the plea that the buildings were in protected area of Booluvapatti reserve forest range, known for elephant habitat/corridor. The request for NOC was returned (February 2013) by Forest department and thereafter no follow up action was initiated to stop further construction,' states the CAG report.
And despite this blatant violation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived at the Isha foundation in February 2017 to unveil the 113 foot Shiva statue in the campus.
A month after this show of political support, Isha 're-approached the Forest department stating that NOC was obtained from Tahsildar, Revenue Department and requested NOC of Forest Department for approaching HACA. DFO (District Forest Officer), Coimbatore forwarded the request to Principal Chief Conservators of Forest (PCCF) with recommendation for the grant of HACA permission', says the report.
The reasons cited allegedly included that the buildings were already constructed and that it was used by people for religious purposes.
'The applicant sought ex-post-facto approval despite the fact that it was within 100 m from Reserve Forest boundary and Writ Petitions were filed by an individual for demolition of unapproved buildings constructed in HACA notified areas by the Foundation in the HIgh Court of Madras. The proposal also incorporated specific mitigation measures to prevent disturbances caused to wildlife and creation of water troughs for the benefit of wildlife. The approval of HACA was pending (July 2017),' states the report.
When TNM contacted the then PCCF senior P C Tyagi, he admits that he did pass on the report despite the clear violation of rules. "I passed it on to HACA. It was placed before a HACA committee. The Housing secretary was looking into it. As far as I am aware no decision was taken," he says.
When TNM contacted Isha foundation, it said that it had followed the required processes.
"Isha Foundation is not fully aware of details presented in the CAG report. We affirm that we have followed due process for getting the requisite approvals for our buildings," says Rahul Dubey, the official spokesperson. "We urge everybody to refrain from commenting on this matter without knowing all the facts," he adds.
When asked specifically if they had the NOC in question from HACA, they had no answer.
The CAG has now slammed the Forest Department for failing to act on notices issued in 2012 during construction of the buildings.
'The Department did not insist for completion of mitigation measures and creation of water troughs prior to recommending the case to HACA. This resulted in non-ensuring the ecologically acceptable and environmental safeguarding of biodiversity of hills,' observes the CAG.
Environmentalists allege that the forest department, state Government and the Centre all colluded to allow the encroachment.
"The man-animal conflict in the region following these construction has noticeably increased and all these institutions are responisble for every human death in this region now," says Nityanand Jayaraman, an environmental activist. "If the state government had a conscience, they would immediately demolish the building and allow things to return to normalcy," he adds.
Conservationist Mac Mohan points out that the political support that the foundation's founder Jaggi Vasudev has protects him from any action against him.
"The government was well aware of these violations," he alleges. "And now with a CAG report pointing it out, there are questions that the Forest Department must answer."