President Pranab Mukherjee pulled out of a cultural extravaganza being organised by the Art of Living as controversy grew over the environmental concerns of hosting the event on the ecologically fragile Yamuna flood plains.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to inaugurate the World Culture Festival (WCF) on Friday and the President was to attend the valedictory function on Sunday.
Though the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) confirmed Modi’s schedule, inside sources said the office was “aware of the controversies” and was “keeping a track of the developments”.
The event drew criticism after some activists petitioned the National Green Tribunal (NGT), a quasi judicial body on environmental issues, asking it to stop the event as it would deeply impact the river’s flood plains. The tribunal is expected to give its judgement on Tuesday.
In its report, an NGT-appointed panel said it was too late to scrap the cultural and spiritual meet, and instead suggested a fine of Rs 120 crore.
The recommended fine would be used for ecological restoration as “huge quantity of debris is to be removed, the site de-compacted, natural topography and contours restored, temporary roads removed, natural vegetation re-planted and so on” , according to experts.
What is the controversy about?
Spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation (AOL), which is organising the event in east Delhi from March 11-13, has come under fire for flattening the floodplain, destroying birds’ nesting sites and choking the polluted Yamuna with construction debris.
The WCF is expected to see a gathering of 35 lakh people, and the venue has been spread over an area of 1,000-odd acres to accommodate the crowd. However, the preparations are fatal to the ecologically fragile Yamuna floodplain, and have reportedly forced birds to migrate from the area.
In spite of construction being banned in the area, 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.
Hindustan Times 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 make roads.
Don’t attend Art Of Living event: Delhi-NCR residents write to Prez
Over the weekend, a group of residents from across Delhi-NCR wrote to President Mukherjee, urging him not to take part in AOL’s festival.
Lima Rosalind, a conservation education and interpretation professional, told HT that doctors, scientists, IT professionals, chefs, army personnel, environment activists and experts had written to the President to make sure the voice of protest was heard.
The hue and cry that we are destroying Yamuna is nonsense: Sri Sri
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, however, has defended his organisation, saying that he would have received a red carpet welcome in any other country for holding such an event. Comparing the importance of the festival to the Olympics, Shankar also said the NGT report was biased.
Shankar further claimed that the organisers had not cut a single tree, and denied that the Yamuna flood plains were being destroyed; instead he argued that the WCF was an eco-friendly event.
Art of Living’s mega Yamuna festival has no fire, traffic nod yet
Meanwhile, the cultural event – possibly the biggest Delhi has seen – is yet to get the required clearances including security, traffic, fire and structural safety.
Traffic police have warned organisers that lack of proper clearances could cause massive traffic snarls in the city, and the fire department has raised concerns as the Delhi Fire Services is yet to give the green light.
Despite several reminders, organisers have allegedly failed to provide the required information for a permit, including an estimate on the number of participants and a blueprint of the venue, marked with the number of entries and exits.
Confusion over extent of venue: DDA allotted 97.4 acres, AOL pamphlet says 1,000 acres
The organisation had sought clearances for 97.4 acres, as per the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). However, pamphlets and official statements from AOL claim the venue is 1,000 acres big.
As the controversy over the use of floodplains grew, AOL on Monday clarified it was not use any extra space other than the allotted area.