The Isha Foundation headed by 'Sadhguru' Jaggi Vasudev has responded to a letter compiled by the Environment Support Group (ESG) and endorsed by as many as 95 civil society groups across the country asking actor and climate activist Leonardo DiCaprio to withdraw his support for the foundation's campaign - Cauvery Calling.
The Isha Foundation termed the letter compiled by Leo Saldanha of the ESG as an attempt "to gain publicity". DiCaprio had posted an endorsement of the campaign on his social media page on September 21.
The letter compiled by ESG had argued that Cauvery Calling campaign did not comprehend the Cauvery river basinâ€™s realities. In a response, Swami Tushya of the Isha Foundation said, "Cauvery Calling is a multi-stakeholder project that has garnered support from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments, the Prime Minister of India, UNCCD, UNDP, and above all, widespread support from the farming communities. The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, Govt of India, Jal Shakti Ministry, Govt. of India.â€ť The response also goes on to list a number of eminent entrepreneurs and IAS officials who have endorsed the campaign.
The letter compiled by ESG also questioned whether the native ecological needs of the Cauvery river basin were considered before launching the campaign. "Planting trees is welcome, but only when it is done where needed, and by choosing appropriate species. It is a process that is best done consultatively, based on local needs, and sensitive to local ecological dynamics. Besides, such a programme must be undertaken with appropriate social action â€“ ground up, involving constitutionally empowered Panchayats, and statutory Forest Rights Committees, Biodiversity Management Committees, Ward Committees, etc," reads the letter by ESG.
Responding to this, Swami Tushya of the Isha Foundation said that "appropriate species of trees" will be planted in each segment of the Cauvery basin. The response stated, "We have listed the appropriate species to be planted in each segment of the entire basin stretch â€“ we have compiled this list with advice from Karnataka Forest Department, Institute of Agricultural Technologists, Institute of Agroforestry Farmers & Technologists, Forest College and Research Institute, Tamil Nadu Agriculture University, academics, and Ministry of Environment, Govt of India, individual experts who have decades of experience in agroforestry and trees in the Cauvery basin before the Cauvery Calling plan was developed."
While the Isha Foundation did not explicitly confirm that local panchayats are involved in Cauvery Calling, the response by the foundation stated that Panchayat leaders had "shown a keen interest" in supporting the campaign. "The social outreach program that preceded the campaign involved volunteers visiting over 7000 villages and interacting with 2.7 lakh people in the Cauvery basin. Panchayat leaders have shown keen interest as Cauvery Calling addresses the crisis of water and agrarian distress that affects lakhs of farmers. Farmers and farmer association leaders expressed their support for the campaign," read the response by Swami Tushya.
The Foundation also stated that, â€śCauvery Calling is not going to touch government or public land, including riparian lands, grasslands, and forest land. We are only asking farmers to partially convert their farmlands to agroforestry.â€ť
Activists had also accused the programme of 'promoting a monoculturist paradigm of landscape restoration which people of India have rejected long ago. Besides, such a programme could create unintended and unforeseen social and ecological consequences, as planting trees in certain regions (grasslands and floodplains for instance) could result in drying up of streams and rivulets, and destruction of wildlife habitats'.
To this Isha responded that â€śthe agroforestry we are promoting is polyculture, not monoculture, multiple indigenous species of timber and horticulture species will be grown on a part of each farmerâ€™s agricultural land which once had only annual crops. The growing of trees will thus increase both floral and faunal biodiversity.â€ť
The letter by ESG had stated that the Comptroller and Auditor General of India had reported that the Isha foundation built its headquarters in an elephant corridor and on land belonging to Adivasis.
The Isha Foundation strongly rejected the allegations. "Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, the Tamil Nadu State Forest Department have put this to rest long back having categorically stated that no elephant corridor ever existed on this land. Wildlife Trust of India report also clarifies the same," read the response by Swami Tushya.
However, a representative of the Foundation earlier told TNM that it received permission for its buildings in Booluvapatti village in Coimbatore district from the Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA) in 2017, nine years after it was constructed. It remains unclear if the permissions by HACA and Deputy Director of Town and Country Planning, which were both required for the construction of the buildings were obtained after the construction.
The letter by ESG further mentioned a PIL in the Karnataka High Court questioning why the foundation was collecting money from the public for this campaign. The foundation, which enjoys the patronage of several celebrities, industrialists, politicians and CSR wings of multinational companies, has called for people to donate Rs 42 per tree. The petitioner AV Amarnath had questioned the need for collecting public money when personalities like Saalumarada Thimmakka and Jadav Payeng, planted trees and created mini-forests without collecting money from the public.
Isha Foundation, in response, termed the PIL "frivolous" and claimed that it lacks evidence.
The High Court issued notices to Isha Foundation and the Karnataka government on September 17 and asked both parties to file a response within three weeks.
The full text of the foundation's response to the letter can be found here.