The National Green Tribunal (NGT) — India’s top environment court — has allowed the spiritual Art of Living Foundation (AoL) to host a ‘World Culture Festival’ within the banks of the Yamuna in New Delhi despite damaging the river’s floodplains and violating environmental rules while preparing for the mammoth event, scheduled March 11-13.

The court has ordered the foundation, led by spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, to pay a “preliminary fine” of Rs 5 crore (USD 745,089), but the final fine will be levied after assessing the state of the floodplain and the river, once the event is over. A committee of experts set up by the NGT had recommended a fine of Rs 100-120 crore (USD 14.9-17.9 million).

See Art of Living festival accused of polluting the Yamuna

The festival — to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the spiritual organization Art of Living — courted controversy by taking over around 1,000 acres on the Yamuna floodplain. While environmentalists were unhappy with the NGT for allowing the festival to go ahead, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar tweeted that he was not happy with the verdict either, and would appeal against it.

Meanwhile, a stage spread over seven acres is almost ready. It takes up the same area as seven football fields. Then there is the sitting area and the parking lots. In around 1,000 acres, the organizers have already cleared the natural vegetation and have compacted the sandy soil of the floodplain for safety. This will adversely affect its ability to allow water to percolate underground.

The organizers had originally said they expected 3.5 million participants for their meditation sessions and spiritual workshops spread over three days. Now they say the number is more likely to be 200,000-300,000.

The government gave its support to the event by asking engineers of the Indian Army to build a pontoon bridge across the Yamuna, so that spectators can walk over from the other side.

However, following an outcry by environmentalists and a petition in the NGT by Manoj Mishra – convenor of the NGO Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan (Long Live Yamuna Campaign) — President Pranab Mukherjee has already pulled out of the valedictory session of the festival.

Despite the outcry and the big-ticket withdrawal, members of the Art of Living (AoL) Foundation are still aiming to enter the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s largest temporary stage.

Authorities penalized

While allowing the festival to be held because the preparations were so advanced, the NGT bench headed by chairman Swatanter Kumar pulled up the authorities for having allowed it in the first place, in violation of  NGT’s January 13, 2015 order which prohibits all construction activities on the floodplains of the critically polluted river.

The judges levied a fine of Rs 5 lakh (USD 7,449) on the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), and of Rs 1 lakh (USD 1,490) on the Delhi Pollution Control Committee for granting “vague permissions” without conducting inspections.

After a day-long hearing — the second day in succession — the order was announced in a room packed with activists, journalists, lawyers and AoL members.

No fire safety clearance yet

It came out during the hearing that two days before the scheduled start of the event, AoL had still not been given fire safety clearance or permission by the traffic police.

It was also found that DDA had twice refused permission for the festival, before changing its mind.

Engineers from the Central Public Works Department told the NGT that they were worried about the safety of the giant stage. They felt that the stage was unstable and there should be a separate stage for the Prime Minister, who is scheduled to inaugurate the event.

Different reactions

Supporters of the event were happy that the event would go ahead, though they criticized the penalty. They also pointed out that the Yamuna was anyway so polluted in its Delhi stretch that it was effectively a dead river. AoL head Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has said volunteers will leave the Yamuna cleaner than before and they had already released a “cleaning enzyme” into the river, though nobody outside the foundation knew the composition of the enzyme.

The foundation has also held that all structures being built for the event for temporary, and that all material will be taken away afterwards.

Reacting to this, petitioner Manoj Misra said, “People need to understand that the stage may be temporary, but the devastation that has happened is permanent.”

Asked about the penalty imposed on AOL foundation, Misra said, “This money cannot compensate the large scale environmental destruction… The court has found all government agencies defaulters. So it is time for them to introspect what went wrong and how to avoid such a situation in future.”

Engineers of the Indian Army build a pontoon bridge over the Yamuna in Delhi for the Art of Living festival (Image by Press Trust of India)

Engineers of the Indian Army build a pontoon bridge over the Yamuna in Delhi for the Art of Living festival (Image by Press Trust of India)

Politicians from various parties continued to back the event. The Delhi government is run by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which is in opposition to the Bharatiya Janata Party that rules at the centre and had asked the army to build the pontoon bridge — an unprecedented order for a private event.

Hours after the NGT order, Kapil Mishra, water and tourism minister in Delhi’s AAP government, tweeted, “Both as Tourism Minister and as a Yamuna activist I am happy tht @WCF2016 (the Twitter handle of the festival) organized by @SriSri is happening in Delhi. Reviving Yamuna is a mission for me. Wish those shouting today had joined the decade long efforts for the same. Why politicize the event? Court order ends all controversies and @WCF2016. Time to welcome all national international leaders & guests in Delhi invited by @SriSri.”

On the other side, water activist Himanshu Thakkar said after the verdict, “The whole thing is very disappointing. NGT made a lot of noise and raised a lot of questions. The whole thing was illegal and NGT had enough time to act and yet it didn’t take any action. The signal that has come out of NGT’s decision is that if you have strong political connection, you can get away with destruction of environment.”

“By applying a fine of just Rs 5 crore, the NGT has indulged in tokenism,” Thakkar added. “It has told DDA not to repeat it again. If someone commits a heinous crime, would you just say don’t do it again? Is it good enough?”

Reacting to claims by the AOL foundation that it has revived 16 rivers in India, Thakkar asked, “Where are these rivers?”

Ritwick Dutta, the lawyer who represented the petitioner in the NGT, said, “This is a clear case of dereliction of duty by the agencies. This (the order) does not absolve Art of Living Foundation from its responsibility. They are guilty of concealing facts.”

“The fact that the court has fined the organizers proves they are guilty of environment violations. What kind of culture are we promoting here? It seems we are celebrating culture of violence against nature, the art of violations, the art of indifference. Without any safety clearances, it is risky for people to come to the site and they shouldn’t come.”

On being asked why it took this long for the activists to move court when preparations are already in the final stage, Dutta said, “From November, activists have been writing to various agencies about their concern. Court is always the last resort. And this is contempt of the court’s own order. AoL has violated it, so citizens don’t need to go to the court for this.”

The NGT will later give orders on how the floodplains should be restored.

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