Art of Living should not be allowed to get away with damaging the Yamuna | opinion$Comment | Hindustan Times
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Art of Living should not be allowed to get away with damaging the Yamuna

A strong precedent requires to be set in order to send out a message that safeguarding the environment is not a matter of convenience.

opinion Updated: May 31, 2017 17:32 IST
Vidya Subramanian
Workers disassemble the stage used during the World Culture Festival organised by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living in New Delhi, April 02, 2016.
Workers disassemble the stage used during the World Culture Festival organised by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living in New Delhi, April 02, 2016. (Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times)

The World Culture Festival, organised by the Art of Living (AOL) Foundation in March 2016, has been mired in controversy since before it happened. Even as the event was being scheduled, the preparations prompted a case in the National Green Tribunal accusing the organisers of destroying the ecosystem around the floodplain of the Yamuna in east Delhi. By building ramps and flattening the area around it, environmentalists claimed, the Art of Living foundation was worsening an already bad situation.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) had asked the foundation to deposit Rs 5 crore as initial compensation, before giving a go-ahead for the event. The remaining amount was to be decided after a committee assessed the damage. At that time, the AOL had first paid only Rs. 25 lakhs, and after much dithering, coughed up the remaining amount in June 2016.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s response to the allegations at that time was to promise to build a biodiversity park in the place in which this 35 year anniversary of his foundation was being held. So far, no such efforts have been seen. Instead, the World Culture festival, which was an extravaganza of dance, music and celebrity (even the prime minister, Narendra Modi spoke at the event), left behind a mountain of garbage. To make matters worse, the floodplain that is usually made up of porous sand had been covered with mud and flattened by road rollers to prepare for the festival. Since compacted mud does not allow water to seep through, it would adversely affect the groundwater replenishment. Activists have also claimed that the event had destroyed birds’ nesting sites and choked the already polluted Yamuna with construction debris.

Garbage waiting to be collected at the site of the Art of Living World Culture Festival on the morning after the event, in New Delhi, on March 14, 2016. (Raj K. Raj/ Hindustan Times)

Now that the NGT appointed panel has estimated the damage and suggested restoration and rehabilitation of the flood plains would require at least Rs 42 crore and 10 years; the AOL has refused to accept the report, going so far as to call it “completely flawed, unscientific and biased” . Sri Sri Ravi Shankar even suggested that it was the NGT that should be fined instead, for allowing the event to take place at all.

The case is still being heard in the NGT, and no final decision has been made, but it will be an important case in the history of environmental legislation in India. Organisations that try to get around environmental regulations tend to think that they can get away with paying token fines or postpone it at least by taking recourse in complicated court cases. The Art of Living Foundation appears to be doing exactly that. Far from working towards building a biodiversity park and helping clean up the dying river that the Yamuna is; it is now trying to wash its hands off the problem by claiming that no one can tell what the state of the floodplain was before the event.

The problem is not one of how much degradation has exactly taken place, or of hypothesising what the space would have been like had the event not taken place. The problem is that organisations that have friends in high places feel entitled to do as they please and play fast and loose with regulations meant to safeguard the environment; knowing full well that they can eventually get away with it.

A strong precedent requires to be set in order to send out a message that safeguarding the environment is not a matter of convenience. Given this government’s commitment to cleaning up India’s dying rivers evidenced by setting up of the Namami Gange and Yamuna revitalisation projects; it would do well to take a strong stand on organisations who try to get away with subverting environment and pollution rules.

@vidyathinks