Culture Festival

Against all norms

Print edition : April 01, 2016

An earthmover is used to level the surface for traffic movement at the site of the World Culture Festival. Photo: Altaf Qadri/AP

Army personnel construct temporary bridges over the Yamuna for the three-day event. Photo: PTI

Artistes rehearsing on the eve of the festival. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi being greeted by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar on the opening day of the festival. Photo: PTI

The World Culture Festival organised by the Art of Living Foundation on the floodplains of the Yamuna flouts environmental concerns and established rules and regulations.

MAKING a mockery of environmental concerns and brazenly flouting rules and regulations, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, “spiritual guru” and founder of The Art of Living (AOL) Foundation, patronised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his senior Cabinet colleagues, flagged off a three-day mega cultural fiesta, the World Culture Festival, on the floodplains of the Yamuna in Delhi on March 11. Thumbing his nose at environmental activists who pleaded with him to change the venue in view of the damage the mega show would inflict on the already gasping river, the high-profile Sri Sri Ravi Shankar seeks to earn an entry into the Guinness World Records for conducting a cultural programme of this dimension on a single stage.

The dimensions of the mega event are mind boggling: over 35 lakh people from 155 countries entertained by 35,973 artists from 24 countries. The venue was spread over 1,000 acres (404 hectares). The stage, built over a seven-acre area, was 1,200 feet long, 200 feet wide and 40 feet high. The AOL organised the event to commemorate its 35 years of existence. But what baffles one is that for a private programme, the government not only went out of its way to facilitate it but also ignored concerns voiced by a huge section of environmental activists and the media. In an unprecedented move, the government even directed the Army to put in place two pontoon bridges to facilitate movement of those attending the event. Even the mandatory fire and security clearances were obtained only hours before the programme started.

The Delhi Development Authority (DDA), which manages the Yamuna’s floodplains, asked no questions about the nature of the event proposed to be organised when the AOL approached it for permission in December last year. This is surprising because no construction activity, permanent or otherwise, can be allowed on the floodplains because it causes damage to the fragile ecosystem of the river. Senior DDA officials told Frontline that permission had been sought only for a small “recreational activity”. The official said the AOL had not disclosed the extent of the programme and officials had no reason to believe that the programme could be so huge. “Since no permanent structures were to be raised, we did not object,” the official said.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT), which the activists approached, constituted a committee in February to look into the environmental concerns. The committee, comprising environmental experts, professors at Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), and government officials, pointed out the damage the event could cause to the floodplains and recommended the imposition of Rs.120 crore on the AOL. The AOL, however, maintained that its programme was not going to cause any damage to the river and that it would help in rebuilding the river. The organisation said that only temporary structures and biodegradable materials would be used for the programme. The organisation also promised that hundreds of bio-toilets would be installed for the people congregating there so that the river was not polluted.

In a detailed statement, 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 further noted that AOL had worked towards the restoration of dying rivers in the country and mentioned the participation of its volunteers 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 over 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 22, 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 programme venue was at a safe distance from the riverbank and that the pontoon bridges were being constructed with permission from the authorities and no parking area had been created on the floodplains. The NGT allowed the programme to go ahead even as it criticised every single agency entrusted with the task of managing the environment after imposing a fine of Rs.5 crore on the AOL. The AOL initially refused to pay the fine saying it had done no wrong. But when 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; it prayed that it be allowed four weeks time to pay. The NGT finally directed the NGO to pay Rs.25 lakh before the programme commenced and the rest in three weeks’ time.

Dying river

What beats logic is why the organisation had to select the Yamuna floodplains for the event, especially since the Yamuna is struggling for survival. The river starts its journey from Yamunotri in the Himalayas and is revered by millions of people. Until its entry into Delhi at the Wazirabad Barrage after traversing 375 km, the river is relatively unpolluted. All along its 22-km long journey in Delhi, the river becomes the recipient of millions of tonnes of solid waste, sewage material, industrial effluents, pesticides, fertilizers, and so on. The river has only 2 per cent of its entire catchment area in Delhi, but over 80 per cent of the pollution occurs here, and in several places it is a virtual cesspool.

Various studies have proved that the Yamuna has become a category E river, whose water is fit only for industrial cooling, irrigation, and so on. According to an article written by the geologist Anil Kumar Mishra in the Journal of Water Resource and Protection, published by Scientific Research, a healthy river should have 5mg/litre of dissolved oxygen (DO) and 3mg/l of biological oxygen demand (BOD), and coliform in it should not exceed 500 per 100 ml. In Yamuna, however, 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. This is because solid waste generated by over 10 million people of Delhi, most of it untreated, gets dumped into the river through 19 drains, and 42 industrial units dump their toxic waste into it (22 units in Haryana and 17 units in Uttar Pradesh do the same). Other toxic substances like pesticides and fertilizers too find their way into the river, making it the dead river that it has become now. There have been efforts to cleanse the river, but they have all been in vain. According to official estimates, Rs.1,500 crore has been spent on cleaning the river since 1993. But this money has gone down the drain. And to hold a programme of this magnitude on the floodplains of such a sick river confounds logic.

Conspiracy of silence

What is also baffling is the conspiracy of silence among the various stakeholders. Even if one goes by the logic that AOL has enough clout with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre for it to get clearances without any questions being asked, it is surprising that the Delhi government, led by the Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal, which has always been at loggerheads with the Centre, played along. In fact, Delhi’s Tourism Minister Kapil Mishra, who is an AOL member, wrote a letter supporting the event. “As the Tourism Minister it is a matter of pride that people and artistes from all over the world will come to my city,” he stated in the letter. He further said that more such events should be organised on the riverbank as it would not only promote tourism but also help people connect with the river and hence help in its cleaning.

It is also surprising that prominent non-governmental organisations (NGOs), otherwise active on all such issues, have remained totally quiet over the matter. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), which has done some exemplary work in the field of environment, has been silent on this issue. Its head, Sunita Narain, refused to comment, saying, “We have not worked on it and till we work on something, we don’t comment on it.”

Changing debate

What is more worrisome is the way the purely environmental debate has dangerously taken a “national” versus “anti-national” overtone. Senior BJP Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu said “it had become a fashion to oppose anything that is about Indian culture, Hinduism or about India”. Vimlendu Jha, executive director of Swechha, an NGO which is one of the petitioners opposing the venue, said he had been called “anti-Hindu” by BJP leaders and had received threatening calls.

According to Jha, the brazen violation of environmental laws, the benign attitude of various law-enforcing authorities towards such violations, and the hoodwinking of various agencies by the AOL were disturbing. “This is a bizarre situation where every law-enforcing agency failed to do its public duty. Every agency seems to be in collusion, having a soft corner for the baba. They have made a joke of the law of the land,” he said.

Indeed, the inaugural programme, which was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, did establish the fact that in a river where the common man cannot immerse even idols and puja material, you can definitely organise a “mahakumbh of art” if you have the right clout. President Pranab Mukherjee, who was to attend the inaugural programme, however, cancelled his visit. Many other world leaders who were to attend the programme also apparently backed out at the last moment.

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