New Delhi: The expert committee, constituted by the National Green Tribunal to assess the damage caused by the World Culture Festival organised by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation on the Yamuna banks, has found that the “entire floodplain area used for the main event site i.e. between DND flyover and the Barapulla drain (on the right bank of river Yamuna) has been completely destroyed, not simply damaged.”
In a damning 47-page report, the panel – chaired by Shashank Shekar, the water resources secretary, and comprising leading scientists, Professor C.R. Babu, Professor A. K. Gosain and Professor Brij Gopal – has stated that “the ground is now totally levelled, compacted and hardened and is totally devoid of water bodies or depressions and almost completely devoid of any vegetation.”
The report added that the main event site had been “totally destroyed by complete clearing of all kinds of vegetation on the floodplain (and loss of all dependent biodiversity), filling in of water bodies and all depressions, dumping of debris and garbage followed by levelling and heavy compacting of the ground”.
Pointing to how the compacting of earth and massive earth movement has impacted the area, it said: “The area where the grand stage was erected (and the area immediately behind it) is heavily consolidated – most likely with a different kind of external material used to level the ground and compress it. Huge amount of earth and debris have been dumped to construct the ramps for access from the DND flyover and from the two pontoon bridges across the Barapulla drain.”
The report also noted how the main river channel had been impacted by the preparations, saying,“Physical changes also occurred in the river channel due to the removal of riparian vegetation, construction of road and pontoon bridges, blocking of the side channel that would invariably disturb the flow and bottom sediments besides bringing in particulate material (sediments and organic matter) into it.”
It said the levelling of the land had also “severely compromised” the floodwater retention capacity of the area. “The simplification of habitat into a flat land has eliminated all water bodies in the impacted area – shallow or deep form naturally in the floodplain. These water bodies control floods, help groundwater recharge, support vegetation, fish and other biodiversity. Overall, the floodwater retention capacity of the area has been severely compromised.”
On July 28 the panel had found the Art of Living liable for causing damage to the river floodplain. The tribunal then gave the foundation three weeks to respond to the charges and the matter would now be heard on August 28.
The committee elaborated on how the construction of roads and ramps and levelling of the surface had damaged the area, saying, “the physical damage in the floodplain and its wetlands include a change in topography which has a direct bearing on the diversity of habitats. Construction of ramps and roads, filling up of water bodies and levelling of the ground together with compaction have almost completely eliminated the natural physical features and the diversity of habitats”.
It also observed that “the floodplain has lost almost all of its natural vegetation – trees, shrubs, reeds, tall grasses, aquatic vegetation including water hyacinth. The vegetation also includes numerous microscopic forms of algae, mosses and some ferns which inhabit the soil and water bodies. All of them have been destroyed in the area completely. Their total loss cannot be readily visualised and documented”.
The report further explained how this could potentially disrupt the natural cycle of the environment, “The vegetation provides habitat, food and sites for breeding/nesting to a large number and kinds of animals including birds, fishes, frogs, turtles, insects and innumerable bottom and mud-dwelling organisms (molluscs, earthworms, insects, and various other micro and macroscopic invertebrates).”
Noting that there had been some “invisible loss of biodiversity” that may “never be able to return”, it said, there was loss as “these organisms were rendered homeless, driven away by intense activity and many were consigned to graves under the debris”.
“Far more significant changes are expected in the micro-organisms which are critical to ecosystem functioning,” the panel cautioned.
The committee also mentioned the obstacles it faced in assessing the damage to the floodplains, saying its members were “prevented from making any study and were forced to retreat by the AOL volunteers on the site” on April 15. It said the team then visited the site on June 6 “for a visual assessment”.
For its part, the Art of Living Foundation in a statement to the media said: “The NGT is yet to hear our application for reconstitution of the committee. Hence, it is not logical to take the report of the committee into consideration before our application is heard. Taking all facts into consideration, it is clear that the allegation of environmental damage are unscientific, biased and unsustainable. We will submit our objections to the report in detail once we have had a chance to go through it.”