President Pranab Mukherjee will not attend the World Culture Festival, his office said on Monday, a day ahead of a court hearing that could decide the fate of the controversial event planned on the city’s eco-sensitive Yamuna floodplain.
Spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation which is organising the three-day extravaganza in east Delhi has come under fire for flattening the floodplain, destroying birds’ nesting sites and choking the polluted Yamuna with construction debris.
HT has written extensively on the damage and violation of construction norms by the organisers who have cleared more than 1,000 acres for the event that opens March 11.
“We have not heard anything from the office of the President. Had he cancelled, we would have known. Clearly it’s a rumour,” an Art of Living representative said.
The organisers have been informed, the President’s office said. “Two days ago, we have conveyed to the organisers that the President is unable to come,” a senior Rashtrapati Bhavan official said. Mukherjee was to deliver the valedictory address.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) is hearing a petition for a ban on the festival that marks the 35th anniversary of the Art of Living foundation. It will cause irreparable damage to the floodplain, says the petition to be heard on Tuesday.
In its report, an NGT-appointed panel said it was too late to scrap the cultural and spiritual meet, suggesting a fine of Rs 120 crore.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate the festival, which the foundation claims will be attended by 3.5 million people. Cultural performances, spiritual talk and yoga and meditation sessions will be held over three days.
Though Modi’s has confirmed his schedule, sources said his office was “aware of the controversies” and was “keeping a track of the developments”.
Construction is banned in the eco-fragile area, but a stage spread over seven acres has come up on the west bank of the Yamuna along with several other temporary structures, including pontoon bridges.
HT wrote about bulldozers and other heavy machinery being used to level the ground for chairs and carpets and pitching tents. Crops were damaged as farmers were asked to clear fields to cut roads.
“The floodplain has been completely destroyed; the natural vegetation consisting to reeds, and trees has been completely removed,” the panel told NGT, the country’s green court.
Several people wrote to the President, requesting him not to attend the event.
“Very happy that the President of India… has been listening to the voices of the people who are discharging their constitutional duty of protecting the environment and not legitimising this non-green event,” said Bharati Chaturvedi, director of the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.
Chaturvedi also requested Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal to give the event a miss.
Dismissing the NGT report as biased, Ravi Shankar said not a tree was cut and he would have received a red-carpet welcome in any other country for holding such an event.
The spiritual guru, who has a worldwide following, denied that the floodplain was destroyed and said it was an eco-friendly function.
The Indian Army, which has built a pontoon bridge on the Yamuna for the event, is likely to build one more to ease movement of lakhs of people who are expected to attend the controversy-ridden festival.
The development came even as there was criticism from some quarters, including the social media, about using the army to build the floating bridge for such an event.
“Lakhs of people are expected to turn up. There is a question of law and order and also fears of stampede. Permission has been granted by concerned authorities to host the event. If a permission has been given, it is the responsibility of the government to ensure everything is run smoothly,” a defence official told PTI.
Instead of private contractors, Indian army soldiers are constructing the pontoon bridges for Sri Sri's event! pic.twitter.com/1zfFLr4BKC— santhosh kottayi (@kottayimavoor) March 5, 2016
They said the organisers had approached the defence ministry seeking six such bridges but the army was asked to erect only one. A second bridge has been erected by the PWD.
“The Delhi Police has now given a report saying that there are fears of stampede and hence the army might build another bridge,” the sources said, adding that a minister from the Delhi government has also written to the ministry highlighting the need for such bridges.
The source said defence minister Manohar Parrikar had asked the defence secretary to look into the issue. During his interaction with the army, the force wondered whether their personnel should be used to help a “private event”.
Indian Army tasked to build floating bridge for Art of Living event 😱😱 Crazy!!— Yusuf (@YusufDFI) March 7, 2016
“The minister was of the view that since permission has been granted, it is the responsibility of the government to ensure everything was fine. The army, which has the expertise, was asked to step in keeping the larger good of people in mind,” the sources said.
They added that the army has been used during Kumbh Mela and even the Commonwealth Games.
Told that the event has come under the scanner of the National Green Tribunal, which looks after the environmental issues, sources said the army is only helping people and it is up to the concerned authorities to grant permission or withdraw it.