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Saving Yamuna: activists face a double whammy

Why is raising your voice against the destruction of trees, forest or wetlands considered as going against the interests of the state or for that matter religion?

A file photo of a polluted Yamuna. Photo: Mint

A file photo of a polluted Yamuna. Photo: Mint

As the Yamuna recovers from the footfall of more than a million people meditating on its floodplains, there are consequences to face not just for the ecosystem but for those who raised their voice against the event. Both Ritwick Dutta, an environment lawyer, and petitioner Manoj Mishra, on whose behalf he argued the case, are now on the radar of state surveillance officers, this columnist has learnt.

Members of the Crime Investigation Department (CID) of the Delhi Police have been asked to keep a close watch on cases related to the Yamuna floodplains that are currently being heard at the National Green Tribunal (NGT). Dutta was accosted by the CID officer present in the courtroom during the proceedings.

Let’s look at the profile of individuals who have been fighting the case against the Art of Living Foundation. Anand Arya, a scholar of the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta with a major in finance and marketing, is an avid birder who spends more time probably photographing birds than in boardrooms. He filed a public interest litigation in the green tribunal and argued his own case in court.

Mishra has now spent a decade spearheading the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, a campaign to save the river, the city’s lifeline. He has in the past raised objections to many structures coming up on the Yamuna floodplains—from a bus depot to the Akshardham temple. Before that, he was with the Indian Forest Service from where he took voluntary retirement to work for a non-governmental organization.

Both Arya and Mishra, now in their 60s, upset by the destruction of the floodplains, instead of organizing any demonstrations or agitations, decided to take legal recourse and filed a petition: Arya argued himself, while Mishra took the help of Dutta. Again, both petitioners raised no slogans; they wrote letters and when that didn’t work, they went to the green tribunal. And they are under surveillance of CID for doing so.

CID is a specialized wing of the police force and is chiefly concerned with the “collection, collation and dissemination of intelligence on and about various political, communal, terrorist, labour activities and with relation to various law and order issues like agitations, strikes, demonstrations”.

Now take a look at the role of the green tribunal (as mandated by the state and an Act of Parliament)—“to handle the expeditious disposal of the cases pertaining to environmental issues, enacted under India’s constitutional provision of Article 21, which assures the citizens of India the right to a healthy environment”. By what definition can the activities at NGT justify the presence of CID?

On any given day, at the tribunal, hundreds of cases are heard. On the left side of the court are typically the polluters, companies and state agencies defending their right to cut down a forest, or pollute a stream or divert a river to construct a road, bridge or highway. On any given day these “developers” are defended by the best legal brains of the country, who happen to be senior members of political parties from the Congress to the Bharatiya Janata Party to the Biju Janata Dal.

On the right side are seated the green lawyers, usually not more than a handful of people. Just from the number of people sitting on both sides it seems there aren’t too many lawyers interested in defending the environment. Both sides are given an equal opportunity to be heard and present their viewpoint. Arguments go back and forth; sometimes they are tedious, sometimes dramatic as in any courtroom in the country.

So why has CID been brought in? And who in the government ordered this? Dutta and Mishra were even warned by fringe elements, who were sloganeering outside the courtroom, to stop taking up “anti-Hindu” cases because of their decision to fight the case against the Art of Living Foundation.

The question is, why is raising your voice against the destruction of trees, forest or wetlands considered as going against the interests of the state or for that matter religion? And why should caring for the environment be given a communal tinge? Surely the idea of India is not so fragile that it gets threatened by a bunch of green activists?

As the media frenzy abates and television channels focus on another story, those working to save the Yamuna have now been left with the task of defending themselves. The message that has gone out to them is clear—be quiet or you’ll come under the police scanner.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World.

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