Millions of bits of plastic, chunks of carpet, biscuit wrappers and bottles are strewn for miles and enmeshed into the soil at the Yamuna floodplain that hosted the World Culture Festival a month ago, HT found on Saturday.
The garbage and construction waste that might have irreparably damaged the area’s fragile ecosystem are hidden from plain sight. There are vast stretches of green grass, cattle grazing in the field and even some birds chirping in the distance.
But a closer look punctures claims made by spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation that the festival it hosted had a negligible impact on the floodplain.
HT found plastic sheets, wrappers and empty bottles of Ravi Shankar’s brand of biscuits and packaged water lodged into the soil at many spots.
The area around the stage– touted to be the world’s largest – is still filthy, with construction waste such as brick and mortar, and plastic in different forms, scattered all over.
The mega event was held on 1,000 acres of land on the Yamuna banks and featured 35,000 musicians and dancers, newly built dirt tracks and 650 portable toilets, in addition to the seven-acre stage.
The festival ran into controversy days before its opening ceremony with environment groups accusing organisers of ripping up vegetation and ruining the river’s fragile ecosystem by damaging its bed and disrupting water flows.
But the Art of Living dismissed these charges and said any plastic or garbage at the site was because of “foul play”.
“Trespassers are responsible for the garbage. There is zero security at the site and anybody can just walk in and do whatever they want,” said Gautam Vig, Art of Living Foundation director.
He said the site was handed over to the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) on Monday after clean-up operations.
“The grounds have been returned in a better condition – greener, cleaner and with no damage to the soil. There was no water, air or soil pollution from Art Of Living’s side,” he added.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) fined the organisers Rs 5 crore and said it will assess damage to the floodplain after the event. The foundation has paid just Rs 25 lakhs till date.
A case at the NGT is underway to decide the exact amount of compensation to be paid for the damage caused by the festival.
Experts appointed by the green court said substantial damage had taken place. “The floodplain has been completely destroyed; the natural vegetation consisting of reeds and trees was completely removed,” an NGT appointed panel had said in its report in March.
It also said it was too late to scrap the event and suggested a fine of Rs120 crore.
The expert team is yet to make its assessment of the “damage caused” and report back to the green court.
On Friday, the green court reserved its order on whether the Art of Living Foundation can pay Rs 4.75 crore as environmental compensation charge through bank guarantees.