The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) has pulled up the Tamil Nadu Forest Department over some unapproved constructions by the Isha Foundation in an ecologically sensitive zone in the state.
According to a report in The News Minute, the CAG report alleges that the state's forest officials failed to stop construction work in a protected forest area known for its elephant corridor, despite knowing about the fact that the project did not have approval from the Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA).
The HACA is a regulatory authority for 31 taluks in nine districts falling in the Western Ghats of the state and is responsible for ensuring that development and construction work on hills is ecologically viable.
The CAG report alleges that between 1994 and 2008 Isha Foundation had constructed various buildings in an area of 32,856 square feet in the protected area of Booluvapatti village merely by obtaining approval from the village panchayat. The foundation failed to seek NOC from HACA. The matter came to light when the foundation applied for an ex-post facto approval from the forest department in October 2011. The forest department found that the due approvals were not sought and hence refused to give a NOC. The CAG report faults the forest department for failing to stop further construction.
'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,' The News Minute quotes the CAG reports as saying.
Earlier, the foundation has been pulled up by the Madras High Court and the Southern Bench of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in a similar issue. According to Hindustan Times, the Madras High Court issued a notice to the foundation, headed by influential spiritual guru Jaggi Vasudev, on a PIL filed by Vellingiri Hill Tribal Protection Society. The society alleged that the Isha Foundation's structures were built on protected wetlands at Ikkarai Poluvampatti.
The foundation has been embroiled in a controversial legal battle over its compound in Coimbatore since 2012 and has even received demolition notices from the state government in the past, the report said.
Moreover, besides the said PIL, an application moved before the NGT claims that the Isha Foundation is carrying out construction in Velliangiri foothills, which is a man-animal conflict area, The Hindu reported. According to lawyer M Vetri Selvan, the petitioner in the case most of the lands owned by the foundation in the area are located in the elephant corridor. Environmentalists allege that thousands visit the foundation every day, in what was previously a remote tribal area, and the crowd increased to a lakh during festivals like Mahashivarathri. This has lead to an increased man-animal conflict in the protected elephant corridor.
The project attracted even more controversy when Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself unveiled a 112-foot-high bust of the Adiyogi Shiva at the ashram on Mahasivaratri in February 2017, despite several green activists urging the prime minister not to preside over the unveiling of the statue, also allegedly built in violation of norms.
The Wire also published a report which said that the land being fenced off by Isha Foundation rightfully belonged to about 200 tribal families in the area. The report tells the story of Muthamma, who was initially a labourer at the Isha Foundation site, but later struggled to get her land rights after the foundation stopped her and other tribals from collecting medicinal plants and herbs from the forest lands, which it said belonged to the Isha Foundation.
Muthamma, however, claims that the land was handed over to the tribals during the Bhoodan movement in 1988 and they had received land pattas. However, "illiteracy and grinding poverty" prevented the tribals from actually taking possession of the land. The Isha Foundation categorically denies Muthamma's allegations in a statement published in The Wire. It states that the matter remains sub judice and asserts that there has been no illegal construction in the area.
Meanwhile, a huge tract of land which the government plans to hand over to the foundation in Andhra Pradesh, too is under the scanner. According to The Times of India, officials claim that the Centre has to first denotify the huge 400 acres tract of land from the reserved forest area before it can be handed over to the Isha Foundation. Senior forest officials said that they had no clue why the land was being handed over to the foundation. The Isha Foundation plans to build a leadership academy, a law school and an international school in the area.