AOL Gets Rs 42 Crore Bill to Fix Yamuna Floodplains, Smells 'Lies'

Despite much hue and cry, the NGT had allowed the AOL to hold the three-day festival in the region as a fait accompli last year.

New Delhi: Almost a year after Sri Sri Ravishankar’s Art of Living (AOL) held the ‘World Cultural Festival’ on the Yamuna floodplains in Delhi causing much environmental damage to the region, an expert committee, set up by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to quantify damage, has come out with its findings. According to the 31-page report submitted to the tribunal, the damage is so severe that it will take another 10 years and nearly Rs 42.02 crore for the floodplains to recover from it.

The report breaks up the destructive impact of the AOL festival on environment into two categories, physical and biological, and specifies the cost and timelines for each. While costs for physical rehabilitation are marked at nearly Rs 28.69 crore in two years, those for biological rehabilitation have been pegged at Rs 13.28 crore over a period of ten years.

The expert panel states in the report that the entire floodplain region used for the main event site, especially the area where the grand stage was erected, has been completely destroyed, causing possibly irreversible biodiversity loss.

The NGT had set up the seven-member expert panel last year headed by Shashi Shekhar, the secretary of the Ministry of Water Resources. It comprised senior scientists and environmental experts. The panel’s report includes an analysis of qualitative changes before and after the program.

According to the expert committee, large-scale work needs to be undertaken to rehabilitate the Yamuna floodplains. “It has been estimated that approximately [300 acres] of floodplains of the [right bank] of the river Yamuna and about [120 acres] of the [left bank] of the river have been adversely impacted ecologically at different magnitudes,” the report said.

On 10 August 2016, the NGT had ordered the committee to submit a tentative report estimating the cost of damages.

Social activist Manoj Mishra had filed a petition protesting the festival. In his complaint, he mentioned how the AOL festival had been environmentally destructive to the floodplains. Taking cognizance of the complaint, the NGT appointed A.K. Gosain, a professor in the department of civil engineering at IIT Delhi, to visit the site and carry out an initial investigation.

On February 19, 2016, the NGT ordered the head of the principal committee and three experts – Gosain, Brij Gopal and C.R. Babu – to visit the site and submit a report on the damage caused. After a visit on 20 February, the four-member committee recommended that the organiser of the event, AOL Foundation, pay Rs 100-120 crore as restoration cost for “extensive and severe damage” to the floodplains, especially on the western side (right bank).

Despite much hue and cry, the NGT had allowed the AOL to hold the three-day festival in the region as a fait accompli last year. Later, it had imposed an interim environmental penalty of Rs 5 crore on AOL for the damage the event had caused to the floodplains. Initially, Ravishankar had defied the NGT’s order but later complied, agreeing to pay Rs 25 lakh immediately and the remaining Rs 4.75 crore in June 2016.

In a statement posted on the official AOL Twitter account, Ravishankar slammed the report as biased and unscientific. He alleged that the report was baseless and had no credibility.

Pointing at alleged inconsistencies in the document, the statement said, “From randomly pronouncing damages for Rs 120 crore, they have come down to Rs 13 crore. From damage to wetlands, they are now saying damage to floodplains. It exposes their lies.”

The statement further alleged that the committee had submitted the report without it having been signed by its chairperson Shashi Shekhar, nor by Brij Gopal, because the report is unscientific. The foundation has also claimed that the NGT report was leaked to the press with mala fide intentions, while the AOL remains a responsible and environmentally sensitive NGO. It concluded by stating that its legal team will decide on an appropriate course of action after studying the report further.

It is noteworthy that the AOL’s World Cultural Festival was attended by such prominent politicians as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, BJP president Amit Shah, Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan and Union minister Arun Jaitley. The next hearing in the case has been scheduled for April 20, 2017.

Note: This article was corrected on April 17 to state that Pranab Mukherjee had not attended the festival.