In September 2019, Cauvery Calling, a nationwide agro-forestry project focused on the Cauvery river, was flagged off in Bengaluru at a gala event attended by leading political figures in the Karnataka government. The event in Bengaluru was part of a series of events held in towns along the Cauvery river to popularise the project.
Six months on, Isha Foundation, which enjoys the patronage of several celebrities, industrialists, politicians and CSR wings of multinational companies, has collected enough money to plant five crore trees through donations from the public.
But even though large sums of money have been collected from the public, it is unclear who will be leading the project in Karnataka – Isha Foundation, or the Karnataka government.
A statement on Isha Outreach’s website quoted the Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa announcing that the forest department in the state would set aside two crore saplings for Cauvery Calling. “The Forest Department is already preparing two crore saplings for distribution. They can be used for this movement. I have already instructed the Forest Department to ready crores of saplings to fulfil Sadhguru’s wishes and stop the destruction of forests and increase green cover so that Mother Cauvery flows again. In order for this movement to succeed, the state government of Karnataka will support it fully in every possible way because we consider it our duty to do so,” Yediyurappa said.
BS Yediyurappa and Jaggi Vasudev in Bengaluru, September 2019
However, in an affidavit submitted in the Karnataka High Court, the state government said that Cauvery Calling was contributing to a government scheme of the Karnataka Forest Department – Krishi Aranya Protsaha Yojane (KAPY). The affidavit makes no mention of the two crore saplings that Isha can use.
“(The state government) is not sponsoring nor is it financing the project by Isha Foundation (Respondent No.2). On the other hand, just like any other private agency who are contributing to the cause of the environment by participating in the scheme of the government, Isha (Foundation/Outreach) is also participating in the scheme of the government,” the state government’s counsel submitted in court.
This raised doubts over who is leading the project and who is playing a supporting role in it. Isha Foundation also submitted to the High Court in March that its social development branch Isha Outreach was dealing with Cauvery Calling.
The High Court is hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) questioning the Karnataka government for supporting the project. The PIL was filed by advocate AV Amarnath and is currently being heard by a High Court bench led by Chief Justice Abhay Sreeniwas Oka.
The KAPY was launched in 2011 by the Karnataka government. The scheme laid down guidelines for farmers, NGOs, and members of the public to obtain seedlings at subsidised rates from nurseries of the forest department and incentivised them to grow native tree species.
“In order to popularise the scheme (KAPY), the government has made provision for the participation of the private agency for the mobilisation of farmers and to educate and enroll them in the scheme. As an incentive to those private agency, to participate effectively, the government also has made some provision for payment of incentive for the voluntary act of said agencies. However, it is not based on any profit making motive,” the submission added.
In fact, the submission goes on to say that the role of Isha Outreach will be "limited to mobilisation of farmers and enrolling of farmers under the KAPY scheme." The state government sought to set aside a separate budget in the existing KAPY scheme for the Cauvery Calling project.
The affidavit in the High Court stated that it had allowed the private agency to support the scheme of the government and denied allegations that the government had permitted a private organisation to collect funds for a project carried out on government land.
“The proposal of the second respondent (Isha Foundation) was thus accepted that the responsibility taken by the second respondent is only limited to the mobilisation of farmers and enrolling farmers under the KAPY scheme. Apart from the above, the second respondent is having no other interest in the entire project, rather if the only involvement of the second respondent in the already existing project of the government,” read the affidavit submitted in the High Court.
Isha Foundation's response to TNM
In a response to TNM, a member of Isha's media relations team stated, "The Cauvery calling project aims to help farmers plant trees on a part of their agricultural lands. The project has two components - one where Isha Outreach handles all aspects from growing of saplings to farmer mobilisation, and another where Isha works in concert with the government. In the context of the latter scenario, Isha facilitates the mobilisation of farmers, while the government of Karnataka produces the saplings and leverages existing government schemes meant to incentivise the farmers to plant trees on their own lands."
The response also stated that Isha Outreach will not be receiving the saplings promised by the Karnataka government. "Isha Outreach is not receiving a single sapling. Every sapling promised by the Karnataka government will go directly to the farmers under the Krishi Aranya Protsaha Yojane (KAPY) scheme," it read.