Should Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveil a 112-foot statue built by the Isha Foundation in Coimbatore when the organisation has been accused of violating environmental and building norms?
This question has gained traction over the last few days in Tamil Nadu, as tribal associations and environmental groups have been opposing what they describe as “profound damage to a pristine ecology” in the foothills of the Western Ghats in Coimbatore.
Modi will be in Coimbatore on Friday, the evening of Mahashivaratri, to inaugurate the colossal statue dedicated to “Adiyogi”, a form of Shiva who in the Hindu tradition is considered the first of yogis. The statue has been funded by Isha Foundation, founded by the popular yoga guru Jaggi Vasudev. On its website, the foundation describes itself as “a volunteer-run, international nonprofit organisation dedicated to cultivating human potential”.
The foundation has been embroiled in controversies since 2012, when it was accused of constructing structures across thousands of square feet in Coimbatore without the necessary approvals.
Tribal associations in the Coimbatore region allege that the statue lack approvals too, since the construction was not approved by the Hill Area Conservation Authority, the statutory committee that supervises the conservation of hill areas.
However, in a statement on its blog, the Isha Foundation dismissed the allegations and said vested interests were trying to sabotage the Mahashivaratri celebrations.
“We have obtained the approval of the necessary authorities, including the District Collector, Coimbatore, the Forest Department and BSNL,” the response said. “A structural stability certificate from a government certified engineer has also been obtained for the 112-ft Adiyogi statue. A ‘No Objection Certificate’ from the District Collector, Coimbatore for using wetlands for non-agricultural purposes has also been obtained. So the question of violation does not even arise.”
It added: “We would like to place on record that Isha Foundation carries out all its activities within the purview of the law.”
Isha Foundation’s alleged violations in Coimbatore first came to spotlight in 2012.
The contentious constructions are located in the Ikkarai Pooluvampatti village near Velliangiri hills in the Western Ghats in Coimbatore, the site of the foundation’s Isha Yoga Centre.
The village is notified under the Hill Area Conservation Authority, a body formed in 1991 by the state government to protect hill areas from excessive commercialisation.
During an inspection in November 2012, the Coimbatore Town and Country Planning Department found that 60 buildings related to the foundation had been constructed without prior approval of the authorities. There were 34 other buildings under construction at that time.
The department issued a notice on November 5, 2012, directing the foundation to stop all construction and seek proper permission within three days.
On December 21, 2012, another notice was issued to Isha Foundation ordering it to demolish the illegal buildings and restore the area to its original state. This order has still not been implemented, though activists claim there was no judicial stay on it.
According to a public interest litigation filed by the Velliangiri Hill Tribal Protection Society on February 17, the constructions, including the huge statue, were completed without the approval of the Hill Area Conservation Authority.
The area where the constructions stand, the petition said, was a wetland with fertile paddy fields and major irrigation canals. However, in the reports submitted by district officials to the collector in response to Isha Foundation’s request to convert the land use to non-agricultural use, it was claimed that the field had not seen any cultivation for three seasons and that there were no irrigation channels. Based on this report, the collector cleared the statue construction.
R Kalaiarasu, the lawyer representing the tribals, said the Isha Foundation claims to be a non-religious organisation floated to propagate the virtues of yoga. “But the collector’s order allowing the conversion of wetland states the statue is for religious purposes,” he alleged.
Lawyer Vetriselvan, who has been following the violations for over a decade, said the state government, in a case related to the foundation, was on record before the High Court stating that the buildings did not get proper approvals.
Last week, a petition was also filed in the southern bench of the National Green Tribunal, claiming that the Mahashivaratri celebrations, which will take place through the night on February 24, will adversely affect the wild animals, including elephants, in the hill area. The petition pointed out that the area was prone to man-animal conflict and any loud sounds would agitate the animals and drive them towards the fields.
Though the celebrations are set to take place on February 24, the NGT adjourned the matter to March 27, providing no relief to the petitioners. In the meantime, the High Court posted the next hearing of the PIL on March 3.
Activists across Tamil Nadu have joined hands to protest the unveiling of the statue in Velliangiri. On Wednesday, former judge of the Madras High Court, Hari Paranthaman, alleged that the Isha Foundation was responsible for over 13 lakh sq feet of illegal constructions.
“Should the Prime Minister associate himself with such an organisation?” he asked, addressing a press conference in Chennai.
Paranthaman said activists were not opposed to the event because it has religious significance. Rather, their only problem was the alleged violation of environment and building norms, which would stand legitimised by the presence of the prime minister.
In Coimbatore, tribal associations have planned street protests on February 24 and are also gearing up to hoist black flags outside houses.