The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB) has informed Madras High Court that Isha Foundation, spread over 48.74 hectares at Vellingiri hills in Coimbatore district, cannot escape from prosecution for having constructed multiple buildings with a total built-up area of 1,25,800.41 square metres without obtaining environmental clearance.
In a counter-affidavit filed before the first Division Bench of Acting Chief Justice T. Raja and Justice D. Krishna Kumar, the TNPCB said the entire facility would fall under the category of ‘infrastructure development project’ and not ‘educational institution’ in order to claim exemption from environmental clearance.
The counter, filed through Advocate-General R. Shunmugasundaram, pointed out that the foundation had obtained the approval of the Directorate of Town and Country Planning (DTCP) for constructing only 10,445.65 square metres for a school, whereas the rest of 1,15,354.76 square metres of the built-up area was to be used for other purposes.
The DTCP granted the approval in 2017 on a specific condition that no construction activity, except for fencing the site and building a shed for the security guards, must begin without obtaining the mandatory environmental clearance. In April 2018, the foundation made an application for clearance to the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (SEIAA).
Such an application was made following the procedures to be adopted by projects that had already commenced without any environment clearance. In November 2019, the SEIAA wrote to the government requesting action against project proponents who had violated the Centre’s Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification, 2006.
The government, in turn, requested the TNPCB to act, and it was following these directives that the Coimbatore South District Environmental Engineer inspected the foundation on November 17, 2021 and issued a show cause notice on November 19, 2021 for having constructed meditation halls, activity halls, assembly halls, work sheds and so on.
In reply to the notice, the foundation claimed that it had withdrawn its environment clearance application from the SEIAA in April 2021. Thereafter, it filed the present writ petition before the High Court contending that educational institutions had been exempt from environment clearance as per a clarificatory amendment made to the EIA notification in 2014.
Assailing the contention, the TNPCB told the court that only around 500 students were studying in a school run by the foundation on its premises and they would not require the entire built-up area of 1,25,800.41 square metres which was actually being used as residential units, meditation halls and so on.
The TNPCB also claimed that the foundation itself had admitted to having constructed only 28,279 square metres before the EIA notification, 2006, came into force and that the rest of 97,521.41 square metres was constructed thereafter without obtaining environmental clearance.
When the writ petition was listed for hearing on Wednesday, Senior Counsel Satish Parasaran, representing the foundation, contended that the 2014 amendment to the EIA notification would squarely apply to the writ petitioner and an institution imparting yoga would certainly fall under the definition of educational institution.
Senior Central Government Standing Counsel K. Srinivasamurthy said the 2014 EIA notification was a clarificatory amendment and therefore it would have a retrospective amendment from 2006. Since the arguments could not be concluded by the end of the day, the judges adjourned the matter for further hearing on Friday.