The Yamuna, a song, and a dance

The AoL has claimed that its cultural extravaganza brought attention to the Yamuna rather than destroy it. But there is a difference between cleaning a river and restoring floodplains.
Front view of the giant stage under construction as of February 20, 2016 (Source: Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan) Front view of the giant stage under construction as of February 20, 2016 (Source: Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan)

The World Culture Festival (WCF) organised by the Art of Living Foundation (AoL) has been in the news ever since Manoj Misra, an environmental activist and convenor of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, filed a petition with the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in December 2015. He asked for the event to be stalled due to concerns about the potential damage to the Yamuna floodplains. While India Water Portal published an interview with Misra last month, I have to confess that my interest in the event was kindled only a few days after the event ended. An old friend who was part of a German contingent at the WCF had posted pictures on Facebook, and was full of praise for how well it had been organised and how colourful it was.

“What are your thoughts on the environmental damage this has caused”, I asked and was met with a reply that was simplistic to say the least. The crux of our Facebook conversation as well as the many comments I read on IWP's Twitter feed later in response to news items we had posted related to the event was that AoL and its followers were actually cleaning the Yamuna, as well as drawing attention to its pitiful state rather than the reality--AoL had brazenly violated a January 2015 judicial prohibition to host one of the biggest cultural extravaganzas to be organised in India. 

Road under construction along the banks of the Yamuna (Source: Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan)

It is true that AoL volunteers have been cleaning the Yamuna since 2010 with Sri Sri asserting that “we will turn it into a beautiful biodiversity park once we are finished with it.” One only has to read up recent news—and not research or technical papers—to understand why cleaning is not the point of contention here. It is the extent of the damage to the floodplains, something which can't be estimated overnight because it is rather different from counting the kilos of trash removed from the river. 

Permanent versus temporary construction: Does it matter?

The floods in Chennai last December are more than enough evidence of what happens when floodplains are built upon but does it matter that the buildings on Chennai's marshlands are permanent structures while the ones built for the WCF were temporary? To understand clearly this important distinction, I decided to contact Misra himself. 

“The ecological impacts happen as much during the process of construction (temporary or permanent) which involves clearing, dumping, levelling, filling of wetlands, compaction of soil, construction of access roads, pontoon bridges etc as much from the construction of the stage etc itself or from the massive footfalls that such events entail. All this went on from early January until mid-March 2016. Hence, despite the temporary nature of the construction, the impacts are no less”, he said.

Is AoL being unfairly targeted?

When told that Twitter comments had asked why AoL and WCF participants were being targeted while other such violatiors were left alone, Misra clearly stated, “Two wrongs can never make a right especially on a functional natural reed beds-grasslands system awaiting further ecological restoration in the hands of experts.” Truth is that this event being allowed is as much the fault of the various government authorities in Delhi as it is of the NGT, especially when there was still a reasonable amount of floodplains left to handle the high water flows during heavy rains--something that was experienced as recently as 2010 and 2013. 

The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) granted permission as late as November 2015 because the AoL had said that it would be difficult to cancel the event as the majority of the planning had already been completed. “It is here that the January 2015 judgement of the NGT becomes central as it had prohibited any developmental activities/ construction in the floodplains. In fact, it had actually devised a restoration plan for the site under which wetlands were going to be created so that the polluted water flowing in the Barapula drain could be naturally treated before entering the river. Ironically it is this very judgment which has been violated by both the DDA and the AoL”, Misra added.  

Exception was made while granting permission

Explaining why permission was granted for the festival, a DDA official said that an exception was made because it was a cultural event involving spirituality, yoga and music. If that's not a poor precedent to set, the NGT judgement went ahead and did just that by implying that money can buy one anything including a 'get out of jail for free card' (or Rs. 5 crore in this case, which is still pending payment) when found guilty. All that Misra's petition asked was that the NGT uphold its own 2015 judgement. 

Debris from road construction dumped along the banks of the Yamuna (Source: Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan)

After making an interim payment of Rs. 25 lakh, Sri Sri defiantly said on Day 2 of the WCF that he will not pay any fine or penalty but would support funds towards the Yamuna's restoration. He also added that he would rather go to jail than pay the penalty, something that the NGT didn't take to very kindly. "When a man of his stature makes such statements, it hits the very rule of law. If anybody hurts the image of the tribunal, he will be taken to rule of law. Don't treat tribunal as subject to your controversy with regard to the event," a bench headed by NGT Chairperson Swatanter Kumar said. 

Kumar's concern is well founded since hardly a day after the WCF had ended, The Telegraph reported that a 'Temple of Knowledge' was being constructed on the ecologically fragile East Kolkata Wetlands by an organisation called the Vaidic Dharma Sansthan Trust, which calls itself "a public charitable religious, spiritual and educational body, inspired and guided by His Holiness Sri Sri Ravi Shankar". That building is only one of many illegal constructions in the area but unlike claims that it is simply a renovation of an already existing structure, contrary opinions have been stated by locals in the area as well as a senior official of the Environment Department who said, "Despite judicial orders and the East Calcutta Wetlands Management Authority Act, there have been a number of violations in the area. But this is the most glaring one in recent times.”

A scientist from the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) who visited the event only for professional reasons has given the AoL a clean chit based on what he saw, but the jury's still out on the extent of damage until the NGT takes a final call. Until then, the people of India—AoL followers or notcan only watch the proceedings from the sidelines to see who will blink first.

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