AOL's Culture Festival

Art of defiance

Print edition : May 26, 2017

An earthmover used to level the surface for traffic movement at the site of the World Culture Festival organised by the Art Of Living foundation on the floodplains of the Yamuna in Delhi on March 9, 2016. Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. He denies that the AOL has damaged the floodplains. Photo: M. Periasamy

The Art of Living Foundation is challenging the National Green Tribunal’s authority to impose a fine on it for the irreparable damage its cultural extravaganza caused on the Yamuna’s floodplains in 2016.

THE National Green Tribunal (NGT), the topmost body in the country responsible for the expeditious disposal of cases relating to the environment, is battling a crisis of credibility as it has come under attack from the Art of Living Foundation (AOL) founded by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who flaunts his proximity to the high and mighty in India and abroad. In a display of cynicism unbecoming of a spiritual leader, Ravi Shankar has mocked the NGT for slapping a fine on his organisation for causing irreparable damage to the river Yamuna and has said that instead of the AOL paying the fine, the NGT should be fined for “giving a green signal for holding the event”.

The AOL has been engaged in a slugfest with the NGT since March 11-13, 2016, when it organised a three-day cultural extravaganza on the river’s floodplains, flouting environmental norms (“Against all norms”, Frontline, April 1, 2016). Although environmentalists had petitioned the NGT to ban the event, the green court then refused to do so, saying the cultural programme had become a “ fait accompli”. However, it said the organisation would have to pay for the repair and rehabilitation of the floodplains. At that time the NGT imposed a fine of Rs.5 crore on the organisation, saying the exact damage would be spelt out after an assessment by an expert committee headed by the Secretary of the Water Resources Ministry. The committee submitted its report on April 12, 2017, slapping a fine of Rs.42 crore on the AOL, saying the cultural event had not only damaged the floodplains but totally ruined them.

“The ground is now totally levelled, compacted and hardened and is totally devoid of waterbodies or depressions and almost completely devoid of any vegetation,” the committee said. It further said that the damage would actually cost more than Rs.42 crore and would need at least 10 years to fix. The committee recommended a time-bound action plan comprising two components: physical and biological rehabilitation. The physical component is estimated to cost around Rs.28.73 crore and the biological rehabilitation around Rs.13.29 crore. The committee said additional costs would be incurred in monitoring the rehabilitation by a team of experts for 10 years and as the cost of transportation of material outside the floodplains.

The 47-page report, which is available on the NGT website, estimates that approximately 300 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of the floodplains west of the Yamuna and about 120 acres of the floodplains on the eastern side of the river have been adversely impacted ecologically.

Scant regard

The AOL has not only ridiculed the committee’s report but gone as far as to describe the committee as biased and acting with a vested interest. In an explanation put up on the AOL’s website, Ravi Shankar castigated the NGT and said that it was a joke that he, the protector of so any rivers (27) and ponds, was being penalised for damaging the Yamuna, which in any case is battling a crisis of survival.

“If at all any fine has to be levied, it should be levied on the Central and State governments and the NGT itself for giving the permission. If the Yamuna was so fertile, fragile and pure, they should have stopped World Culture Festival at the very beginning,” Ravi Shankar said in the explanation.

He further said that the AOL had obtained all the necessary permissions for the event, including that of the NGT. The statement said: “The application was pending before the NGT for two months before the event. They could have stopped the event in the beginning if they wanted to. It defies all principles of natural justice that you give permissions and slap a fine for not violating any rules! This is like giving a ‘challan’ to someone on a green signal!”

“A historic program[me] deserving of applause and appreciation is unjustly projected as a crime! Witnessed by 1.8 billion people all over the world and a massive turnout on the ground, a floating stage of 7 acres without any foundation (a marvel in itself!), the event polluted neither air, water nor land. The world over, cultural program[me]s are held on riverbanks. The whole idea was to bring awareness to save the river. The Art of Living that has rejuvenated 27 rivers, planted 71 million trees and revived several ponds is being projected for destroying a dead river. What a joke!”

The website also features an article by the AOL’s legal team that rubbishes the expert committee’s estimate of the damage, saying the same committee had earlier pegged the damage at Rs.120 crore without any basis and then hastily withdrawn it when it found it difficult to defend. Calling the committee “biased and irresponsible”, the legal team said it wanted the committee to be reconstituted in the beginning itself, a plea which was not granted. Objecting to the committee members giving statements, the legal team said on the website: “Then we wanted to cross-examine the committee, but even that was not accepted.”. The organisation has also posted satellite images from 2008 onwards from Google Earth to show that no damage was done to the river.

Defamation case

Taking a serious view of the verbal attack by Ravi Shankar, the NGT has slapped a defamation case against him. Interestingly, the issue is turning out to be a test case for all institutions, Central and State, that are entrusted with the task of protecting the environment and their level of commitment to it.

A major sticking point is the fact that a mega event of such mind-boggling dimensions was allowed to take place on the fragile river plain: over 35 lakh people from 155 countries, including 35,973 artists from 24 countries, were to occupy a venue spread over 1,000 acres. The event was graced by none other than the Prime Minister himself, with many Union Ministers in tow. The seven-acre stage was 1,200 feet long (one foot is 0.3 metre), 200 feet wide and 40 feet high.

The event held significance for the AOL as it was organised to commemorate its 35 years of existence. But the question remains as to what was the Central government’s compulsion to bend over backwards to accommodate it on the river plain. Also baffling is the fact that the government went out of its way to facilitate a private programme, ignoring environmental concerns voiced by a huge section of activists and the media. In an unprecedented move, the government even directed the Army to put in place two pontoon bridges to facilitate the movement of those attending the event. Even the mandatory fire and security clearances were obtained only hours before the programme began.

DDA’s permission

The Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which manages the Yamuna floodplains, surprisingly asked no questions about the nature of the event proposed to be organised when the AOL approached it for permission in December 2015. According to existing norms, no construction activity, permanent or otherwise, can be allowed on the floodplains because it can cause ecological damage to the fragile ecosystem of the river. Senior DDA officials told Frontline then that they were completely taken for a ride by the spiritual guru because permission had been sought only for a small “recreational activity”. The official said that the AOL had not disclosed the extent of the programme and they had no reason to believe that the programme would be so huge. “Since no permanent structures were to be raised, we did not object,” the official had said.

But what was more worrying was the reaction of the Central government once environmental activists started raising questions and they approached the NGT. The NGT constituted a committee in February 2016 to look into the concerns. The committee, which comprised environmental experts, professors of the Indian Institutes of Technology and government officials, pointed out serious irregularities and recommended a fine of Rs.120 crore to be imposed on the AOL. This estimate, however, was hastily withdrawn by the committee as it was based on only a “cursory visual assessment” and was not substantiated by any scientific study.

The AOL had maintained that its programme was not going to cause any damage to the river and that it would, instead, help in rebuilding the river. The organisation had promised that only temporary structures with biodegradable materials that would not cause any harm to the river would be used for the programme. The organisation had also promised that hundreds of bio-toilets would be installed for the people congregating there so that the river did not get polluted.

In a detailed statement then, the AOL said: “We have used only eco-friendly material like wood, mud, cloth, and scaffolding towards building a temporary stage for the purpose of holding a three-day festival.” The statement noted that the AOL had worked towards restoration of dying rivers in the country and that its volunteers had participated in the Meri Dilli Meri Yamuna campaign in 2010. It claimed that when the site of the festival was identified in December 2015, there was already massive dumping of construction debris on 25 acres of land and this was brought to the notice of the DDA.

“Only upon the grant of permission from the authorities/DDA in its letter dated December 21, 2015, the Art of Living started the process of removal/clearing of the said debris from December 22nd 2015 till date,” it said.

Stating that 650 bio-toilets were being installed to ensure that no waste was passed into the Yamuna, the foundation said: “We have not cleared any greenery or levelled the area by dumping any construction debris as alleged. The material used towards construction of the temporary stage is not in any manner embedded in the riverbed.” Further it claimed that the venue was at a safe distance from the riverbank, that the pontoon bridges were constructed with permission from the authorities and that no parking area had been created on the floodplains.

The NGT, in what now appears to be an abject surrender, allowed the programme to go ahead even as it criticised every single agency entrusted with the task of managing the environment, but only after imposing a fine of Rs.5 crore on the AOL. The AOL, displaying brazen disregard for the NGT’s authority, refused to pay the fine, saying it had done no wrong. But when it was pulled up by the NGT, it said that it was a charitable organisation and giving such a huge fine in such a short time was not possible and asked for four weeks’ time to pay. The NGT finally directed the AOL to pay Rs.25 lakh before the start of the programme and the rest in three weeks’ time, which the organisation subsequently paid with great reluctance.

What causes concern now is the fact that the AOL has mocked the authority of the NGT itself, which can set a bad precedent if the organisation is allowed to get away with it. “Now it has basically become a war of perception between the AOL and the NGT. Let us see who gets to win,” said Vimlendu Jha, executive director of Swechha, a non-governmental organisation that was one of the petitioners opposing the event.

Ailing river

The moot question remains as to why the organisation had to select the banks of the Yamuna for the event. The area where the cultural festival was organised has been totally converted into flattened, hardened land, and looks like a football ground; it is unlikely that any vegetation will grow on this patch ever.

The Yamuna is anyway gasping for breath. The river starts its journey from Yamunotri in the Himalayas as a healthy waterbody, which is considered sacred by millions of people ( Frontline, April 1, 2016). Some 375 km into its journey it enters the Wazirabad barrage in Delhi, where it starts to get polluted. Along its 22-km-long journey in Delhi, it becomes the recipient of millions of tonnes of solid waste, sewage, industrial waste, pesticides and fertilizers. The river has only 2 per cent of its entire catchment area in Delhi, but over 80 per cent of the pollution occurs here.

Various studies have proved that the Yamuna has become a category E river, which means that its water is not fit for drinking or bathing but is only fit for industrial cooling, irrigation, and such purposes. According to an article by the geologist Anil Kumar Mishra in Journal of Water Resource and Protection, published by Scientific Research, a healthy river should have 5 mg/l of dissolved oxygen (DO), and a biological oxygen demand (BOD) level of 3 mg/l, and the coliform content should not exceed 500 per 100 ml of water. In the Yamuna though, DO is nil, BOD ranges much above the prescribed level, at 14 to 28 mg/l, and the coliform level at certain points is as high as 50,000 per 100 ml of water. Solid waste generated by a population of over 10 million people, most of which is untreated, gets dumped into the river through 19 drains. In addition, 42 industrial units dump their toxic waste into the river (22 units in Haryana and 17 units in Uttar Pradesh do the same).

According to official estimates, Rs.1,500 crore has been spent in cleaning the river since 1993 but to no avail. The AOL’s claim that the programme was organised to rejuvenate the river is unfounded.

Efforts to speak to AOL representatives were futile. NGT officials said they had put everything they had to say on the issue on its website.

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