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Art of Living festival accused of polluting the Yamuna

A cultural festival being organised by Art of Living Foundation faces a massive fine for allegedly ravaging the floodplains of the Yamuna River
<p>Debris dumped on the banks of the Yamuna from the preparation for the upcoming festival [image by Prof Brij Gopal]</p>

Debris dumped on the banks of the Yamuna from the preparation for the upcoming festival [image by Prof Brij Gopal]

The world culture festival being organised by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation (AOL) is caught in a controversy for allegedly damaging a vast stretch of Yamuna’s floodplains in New Delhi. An expert committee appointed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has recommended a fine of Rs 100-120 crore on the organisers for harming the river’s ecology.

The expert committee that has noted experts like A. K. Gosain from IIT Delhi, C.R. Babu of Delhi University and Brij Gopal on its panel visited the site on February 19 and found gross environment violations during preparations for the mega event that will be held over an area of 1,000 acres on the banks of the river Yamuna March 11-13. Over 3.5 million people are expected to attend the event.

At the site, a gigantic stage, measuring 12,000 feet in length, 200 feet wide, and 400 feet high is being constructed using scaffolding made of steel pipes and wooden planks. Ramps and parking sites will also come up on both sides of the floodplains. One pontoon bridge has already been constructed while few more are in the pipeline. Several large portable enclosures for various performances and 650 portable chemical toilets will also be installed at various locations.

The gigantic stage being built on the Yamuna floodplain [image by Prof Brij Gopal]
The gigantic stage being built on the Yamuna floodplain [image by Brij Gopal]
The expert panel observed in its report that at least 50 to 60 hectares of the area on the western side of the floodplains has been impacted due to constructions. It noted that, “In the entire area, the flood plain has been completely destroyed; the natural vegetation consisting of reeds, and trees has been completely removed, and the large number of birds and other natural life that was supported by the floodplain has vanished due to this destruction.” The panel also found that the entire floodplain between the river and DND flyway (Delhi’s major motorway) has been levelled and water bodies that existed earlier have also been filled up. Most of the trees have also been removed or lopped. A large amount of debris was noted along the roads.

While the Art of Living Foundation has claimed that it received the requisite permissions from Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the committee’s report said, “this permission… to organise a cultural festival on the ecologically sensitive Yamuna flood plain by destroying a very sizeable area is in gross violation of the NGT order dated 13th Jan 2015.” In this order, the NGT had prohibited all construction activities on the floodplains of the Yamuna that could be detrimental to the river’s ecology. It had also ordered identification of structures that need to be demolished.

Seeing the devastation and violation of the NGT order, the expert committee has not only suggested a fine of the scale of Rs 100-120 crore but has also said that the Art of Living Foundation must complete all the ecological restoration activities including decompacting of soil within a year.

Prior to this, in another site inspection report dated February 16, Gosain also observed that “a huge amount of debris and construction waste has been dumped into the Yamuna main channel.” He also said, “The activity (construction) cannot be termed as a benign activity and shall have a permanent footprint on the flood plain and if allowed shall be in complete violation of the NGT order of January 2015 and shall also set a bad precedent.”

A wetland encroached upon by the construction [image by Prof Brij Gopal]
A wetland encroached upon by the construction [image by Brij Gopal]
Another site inspection by the officials of the ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) was done on February 22 as directed by the NGT. In its report, the MoEFCC panel suggested that since the site preparation to host the event is already in an advanced stage, environmental safeguards and measures should be taken up during and after the event. The team noted that stage has been made of scaffoldings that are not piercing the ground but a large number of iron poles had been dug into the top soil. It also noticed levelling of ground and clearing of bushes but found the presence of some patches of water bodies.

Environmentalists are crying foul and are demanding that the event should not be permitted at all.

Manoj Misra, Convenor of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan (Long Live Yamuna Campaign), on whose complaint the NGT ordered a series of site inspections, told thethirdpole.net, “This event has to be stopped. Going by the polluter pays principle, the organisation should not only be fined but also asked to restore the area [as it was].” He added, “Never before such large scale devastation has happened. More than 2,000 acres of the floodplain will be impacted. The permission given by DDA is flawed as the matter is sub judice in the court and after the 13 January order, the NGT needs to be approached first for any kind of construction on the floodplain.”

Anand Arya, a birdwatcher and activist, has also filed a case in the NGT against the World Culture Festival.  He fears that the event will adversely affect bird life. “The timing is terrible. Because it is time for birds to migrate back from Okhla bird sanctuary (situated on the Yamuna).  There is a sudden increase in the population of birds in the sanctuary as compared to last month which means they are gathering their strength for reverse migration. Most of the migration happens in the night and there will be major light pollution during the festival and rehearsals prior to the event which will have a direct impact on the bird life,” said Arya.

However, AOL claims that they have not violated any law. In a statement, the foundation claims that they have in fact cleared debris which was already present over 25 acres of the area. The statement says, “The entire material used for this temporary construction is eco-friendly which will not cause damage to the river Yamuna or the environment.”  It also denied dumping of debris in the river and claims, “The Art of Living has not made any permanent structure or any construction at the site and personally commits/undertakes to clear all the temporary structures being set up immediately after the event is over, ensuring that the place is left cleaner and more beautified than before.”

There are reports doing the round that AOL is trying to enter the Guinness Book of Records for the ‘largest temporary stage in the world’.  Over 35,000 artistes and musicians will perform in a seven-acre arena. Also, with an expected crowd of 3.5 million people, it will be among the world’s biggest gatherings.

The event is supported by DDA, central government and ministry of culture, among others. Interestingly, Kapil Mishra, who is both Delhi’s water and tourism minister and who himself has pledged to clean the river Yamuna in the next three years is part of the reception committee of the event.

He exclusively told thethirdpole.net, “ I want more events and activities to take place on the banks of the river. Our government is trying to bring people closer to Yamuna . For this, we have started daily Yamuna aarti (worship of river) and introduced water sports.”

Talking about the environmental concerns surrounding the festival, he added, “I have visited the site twice and I didn’t spot any debris being dumped in the river nor trees being felled. These are all temporary constructions and no concrete is being used. Even the roads are temporary and everything will be removed once it is over. I am in fact happy that such a big cultural event is being organised in Delhi.”

In the meantime, with the festival being round the corner and controversy brewing over alleged environment violations, the NGT will begin daily hearing of the case from Tuesday, March 1.