New Delhi: The National Green Tribunal on Tuesday began day-to-day hearings into a petition filed by environmentalist Manoj Misra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan to establish if the mega Art of Living celebration on the banks of the Yamuna’s from March 11 to 13 would cause damage to the its ecology. For the event, five pontoon bridges are being constructed across the river, a 7 acre stage has been prepared on a 1,000 acre plot and hundreds of acres of land are being levelled for creating parking space on the river floodplains.
In view of the massive construction being undertaken for the event, which is expected to be attended by around 3.5 million people, and would feature 35,973 performers from 24 countries, environmentalists had moved the NGT seeking a restriction on the event. Subsequently, inspections were carried out by IIT-Delhi professor A.K. Gosain and the Delhi Development Authority. But they had submitted contradictory reports with Gosain even alleging that “the site has been cleared of all natural vegetation and consolidated with the machinery” and that “it appears that the site has been raised with the help of JCBs (mechanical excavators).
The tribunal had subsequently, on February 19, ordered a third inspection by a committee comprising Gosain, Brij Gopal, C.R. Prabhu and the secretary of the ministry of water resources, Shashi Shekhar.
Noting that small water bodies that existed earlier have been filled up, all natural vegetation removed, and most of trees had been lopped or removed, the committee said that the preparations for the event have had a severe environmental impact. It had, therefore, recommended the imposition of a Rs 120 crore fine on the Art of Living Foundation.
The panel had also stated that “… this amount should be collected from the foundation before the event and kept in a separate account monitored by the NGT.”
Though the committee had also called for completing the entire ecological restoration of Yamuna’s affected sites within a year of the completion of the festival, it had not suggested cancellation of the event.
In an interview to The Wire, Mishra said his organisation would be pleading for the cancellation of the event as the coming in of 3.5 million people and lakhs of vehicles on the Yamuna floodplains would further damage its fragile ecology. “Ideally, the event should be stopped. It is not sufficient to just say that it is polluting and damaging and so the fine must be paid. If it is damaging and polluting then it should not be allowed.”
He recalled a similar instance during the Sheila Dikshit government in Delhi when a huge exhibition was permitted on the banks of the river near Kalindi Kunj and environmentalists had gone to the high court against it since the NGT had not been formed. But by the time the court orders finally came, the event wast over. Misra is hopeful that this time, words would translate into action on the ground.
For its part, the Art of Living foundation has issued a detailed statement to claim that it followed the rules spelt out by Delhi Development Authority and the guidelines of the NGT. In a statement, Art of Living claimed that in strict adherence to the NGT direction, it has not done any construction or concretisation at the World Culture Festival site.
“Further we have used only eco-friendly material like wood, mud, cloth, and scaffolding towards building a temporary stage for the purpose of holding a three-day festival,” it said. It noted that Art of Living under Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has worked towards restoration of dying rivers in the country including the participation of its volunteers in the Meri Dilli Meri Yamuna campaign in 2010. It claimed that when the site of the festival was identified in December 2015, there was already massive dumping of construction debris spread over 25 acres of land which was brought to the notice of the DDA.
“Only upon the grant of permission from the authorities/DDA in its letter dated December 21, 2015, the Art of Living started the process of removal/clearing of the said debris from December 22nd 2015 till date,” it said.
Stating that 650 bio-toilets were being installed to ensure that no waste was passed into the Yamuna, the foundation also said: “We have not cleared any greenery or levelled the area by dumping any construction debris as alleged. The material used towards construction of the temporary stage is not in any manner embedded in the river bed.” Further it claimed that the programme venue is at a safe distance from the river bank, the pontoon bridges are being constructed with permission from the authorities and no parking area has been created on the floodplains.
For its part, the Delhi government has also defended the event. Its culture minister, Kapil Mishra, who is also a member of Art of Living foundation, supported the event saying it would promote tourism in the National Capital.
“I am supporting the event and I think more events should happen on banks of the river. It is a good idea. Lakhs of people will come to the Yamuna and build a connection. They will see its condition and will put pressure on officials and us politicians to make sure we clean and revive the river. The construction at the site is temporary and the event will not damage the river. As the tourism minister, it is a matter of pride that people and artistes from all over the world will be coming to my city,” he was quoted as saying.