We cannot demolish Akshardham Temple, but we can protect the remaining Yamuna riverbed [by not allowing further construction],” this is what then environment minister Jairam Ramesh said in 2011.
Ironic then that in late 2010 the temple trust (Bochasanwasi Sri Akshar Purshottam Sanstha) had already begun construction on an expansion – nearly half the size of the original structure – without getting the mandatory environment clearance.
And now the state environment impact assessment authority (SEIAA) has granted a post-facto clearance to the illegal expansion — with built-up area of 25,497 sqm.
“Large-scale construction behind the old structure has been visible to everyone since 2010. Such (post-facto) clearances will make the need for prior green approval redundant,” said Manoj Misra of environment group Yamuan Jiye Abhiyan.
The forest ministry in 2006 had made green clearance mandatory before any construction in a project of 20,000 sqm or more.
The clearance comes at a time when government agencies are struggling to explain in court the exceptions they have made to allow constructions on the protected Yamuna floodplains.
Interestingly, the SEIAA issued the clearance on July 30, 2013 subject to safe construction practices and pollution control – when most of the expansion was already complete.
JK Gadhiya of the trust said: “We didn’t know it [the expansion] needs environment clearance. We approached the SEIAA as soon as we knew the clearance was mandatory.” The trust submitted an application for clearance on December 19, 2012 — nearly two years after construction had started.
SEIAA member secretary Sandeep Mishra said: “The trust approached us for environment clearance for the [illegal] expansion they had almost completed. We have instructed them not to repeat such violations.”
The trust built the old complex at a cost of R100 crore after it got 12 hectares of land in 2000 from the Delhi Development Authority. Construction, with built-up area of 55,410 sqm, finished in 2005.
“The old complex did not require environment clearance because it came up before the ministry of environment and forests made environment clearance mandatory for all projects of 20,000 sqm or more only in 2006,” said Mishra.”