The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) has found that Isha Foundation, Coimbatore, had continued construction in its headquarters in an elephant habitat/corridor without obtaining a No Objection Certificate from the Hill Area Conservation Authority (HACA).

Despite issuing two notices in 2012, and returning the NOC request in February 2013, the State Forest Department did not take any follow-up action to stop further construction. Instead, the Coimbatore District Forest Officer, when re-approached by Isha in 2017, forwarded it to the Principal Chief Commissioner of Forests with a recommendation to grant HACA permission.

These startling revelations are found in the CAG report on Economic Sector for the year ending March 2017 tabled in the Assembly on Monday under the title ‘Urbanisation in Elephant Reserve’. “Isha still has not obtained the NOC from HACA,” said a highly placed source in the government.

According to the report, the government in March 2003 directed that construction of commercial and office building of more than 300 sq.m. area and buildings developed in Booluvapatti village to consult the HACA in respect of all developmental programmes.

The Isha Foundation had constructed various buildings between 1994 and 2008 in an area of 32,856 sq.ft in the Booluvapatti village with permission from the panchayat. In October 2011, the Foundation requested the Forest Department to issue an NOC and ex-post facto approval from HACA for the already constructed buildings in an area of 69,193 sq.m., proposed construction in an area of 52,393 sq.m and area of 3,34,331 sq.m for vehicle parking, roads, playground and so on.

The DFO conducted a field inspection in February 2012 and observed that earlier constructions of buildings in 11,973 sq.m undertaken from 2005 to 2008 was permitted by the panchayat without consulting HACA.

The field assessment report in August 2012 stated that the Foundation continued construction in the area despite issue of notices in February and April 2012 on the plea that the buildings were in the protected area of the Booluvapatti reserve forest range, known for elephant habitat/corridor. The request for NOC was returned on February 2013 but no follow up action was initiated, the CAG pointed out.

In March 2017, when the Isha Foundation re-approached the then Coimbatore DFO, he forwarded the request for NOC with recommendation for HACA nod citing that the buildings had already been constructed, used by public for religious purpose.

The CAG pointed out that the applicant sought ex-post facto approval despite the fact that it was within 100 metres from RF boundary and writ petitions for demolition of unapproved buildings constructed in HACA notified areas by the Foundation were pending in the Madras High Court. The proposal also incorporated measures to prevent disturbances caused to wildlife and creation of water trough. In November 2017, the government replied to the CAG that the encroachments did not fall under the purview of the Tamil Nadu Biodiversity Greening Project. The CAG rejected the reply as not tenable.

Isha’s reply

In a statement, the Isha Foundation said it was not fully aware of details presented in the CAG report. “We affirm that we have followed due process for getting the requisite approvals for our buildings.”

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