Delhi rarely hosts rock concerts and big-ticket private events. It is because organising a single event requires permissions from at least 27 government departments, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal told business leaders in Kolkata in January this year.
But the Art of Living Foundation still chose Delhi for its World Cultural Festival. The assembly of international faith leaders, artists and top Indian politicians couldn’t have happened anywhere else but the Capital and the authorities obliged with permissions. When the use of the Yamuna floodplain as the venue landed the organisers in legal trouble, many wondered what the fuss was all about.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the leader of Art of Living, didn’t think the Rs 5 crore fine imposed by the National Green Tribunal for holding the event was a penalty. It was a price for the Yamuna’s restoration, he said. His followers maintained that the controversy was needless as the floodplain, the largest open space in Delhi, was being put to good use. Where else could you have erected a seven-acre stage to accommodate 8,500 artists and made room for a 300,000-strong audience at any given time?
But a riverbed is not real estate. The Yamuna is more than what is visible to us. Its vast sand aquifer runs 2-km wide and nearly 40-metre deep along the 48-km stretch through Delhi. It is the biggest reserve for freshwater the city will ever have. But most of us merely consider the surface value — vast vacant land that can be put to use.
A river must breathe and the floodplain functions as its lung. It is a living delicate organ that collects and releases water seasonally. Even a temporary construction here destroys the grass, shrubs and trees that sustain a riverine eco-system complete with insects, reptiles, birds and small mammals. Their dispensability cannot be determined by relative perceptions of their aesthetic value. They are essential to keep rivers alive and our cities liveable.
Nature is resilient but we have been relentless in our assault. Having granted permission to Art of Living, how would the authorities ever stop any other event, of whatever scale or duration, if the organisers met the parameters that the AoL claimed to have met? Anyway, much of the encroachment on the floodplain has been justified on the principle of precedent.
The government allowed Akshardham Temple on 90-acres of floodplain in the early 2000s. After Akshardham, a Metro yard, train stations, Delhi’s biggest bus depot, the Barapullah elevated road and the Commonwealth Games village have come up on the shrinking floodplain.
Every time a structure was constructed on the riverbank, the government regularised it as the last exception. Yet, new ones keep coming up. The only structure removed from the river bed were the shanties of Yamuna Pushta that were home to 175,000 people — probably because it was not built by the government.
History tells us that rivers are unforgiving. Cities that have messed with their rivers have paid heavily. Most western cities compromised their floodplains centuries ago by heavily urbanising on its rivers and wetlands. Parts of Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Dresden, Passau, and Bratislava were destroyed by the 2013 floods because they are built right on the rivers they flank.
In 2009, Istanbul saw one of its worst flash floods that killed 30 people. The high-density concrete jungle along the riverbanks and the insufficient drainage system of Istanbul prevented the rainwater from reaching the sea through natural channels. The Turkish prime minister called it “the river’s revenge”.
Closer home, a stifled Mithi struck back at Mumbai in 2005, and the Adyar sought revenge on Chennai last year. The apocalyptic scenes of concrete structures collapsing like a pack of cards and falling into the swollen rivers in Uttarakhand in 2013 were just a warning on what encroachment on floodplains could lead to.
By choking the Yamuna with constructions and stomping all over its floodplains, we are only setting ourselves up for urban tragedies. It’s time Delhi says enough is enough and means it. Or the river will.