When a ‘holy’ man meets a holy river, the result can only lead to troubled waters. That’s precisely how things are panning out after Sri Sri Ravi Shankar decided to stage a humongous event in Delhi. The event, the World Cultural Festival—to mark 35 years of Art of Living (AOL)—is expected to attract over 30 lakh followers. Naturally, that requires a massive expanse of land, and the one AOL selected was on the banks of the Yamuna. A team of engineers and construction workers were busy clearing the area and putting up the mammoth infrastructure when the spoilers stepped in. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) sent a team to survey the work in preparation for the March 13 event. The team reported the following:
- The entire area from the river to the DND flyover has been levelled flat.
- Existing water bodies had been filled up, natural vegetation removed and construction debris was dumped on roads being constructed along the margins of the river.
- Pontoon bridges were being finalised and parking bays were being constructed on the eastern bank of the river, along with 650 portable toilets. The event will take place on the western bank.
An amazing sight hove into view when Outlook visited the site. Instead of private contractors, Indian army soldiers dressed in fatigues were busy constructing the pontoon bridges. If a godman can get the army to offer their services, presumably for free, to help him set up access to his temporary mini-city, it is testimony to the clout that Sri Sri wields.
- Some 50-60 hectares of flood plains, on the western side, has been completely destroyed, with all natural vegetation, including trees, removed.
In essence, an eco-sensitive area has been given over for a megatonne jamboree, with the Delhi Development Authority and the irrigation department playing facilitators. Sri Sri retains his saintly composure and dismisses “all the hue and cry” in the name of environment as “nonsense”. The event, he says, will take place on a seven-acre enclosure, involving 8,500 musicians, and is likely to be attended by people from 155 countries. “Much higher than participation in Commonwealth Games,” he boasts.
Preparations for the fest
However, it didn’t find much favour with the NGT, which recommended that “a suitable, strong message be sent out to agencies and organisations to prevent any attempt for further such violation in the future”. The NGT committee also recommended a fine of Rs 120 crore to pay for the restoration of the flood plains and for the area’s natural topography to be restored. That amount is actually a conservative estimate, as it covers only the western banks of the river and only accounts for damages done till February 20, the day of the team’s visit.
Sri Sri is one of the most charismatic personalities in gurudom, with politicians and businessmen as his adherents. He has been seen frequently with PM Modi. That gives him considerable clout in the corridors of power, which perhaps explains why he is taking on the NGT. In an interview, he says: “The first thing that we wanted to do was to approach NGT and take permission. But NGT has no such system. Only when a petition was filed did the NGT have a say at all. We applied for the location as it was well-connected and it was willingly allotted.” He denies the dumping of debris and adds: “We have not cut any trees. We pruned the branches of four trees as they were obstructing the view.” When Professor Brij Gopal of Jaipur, a river expert and member of the NGT team, was informed of the clarification given by the godman, he reacted strongly: “The habitat, water bodies, topography, all of it has been destroyed. It was done in a few days, will take years to restore if they ever decide on it. He says no tree was cut, but has destroyed the whole wetland ecology. His perception is wrong.”
The problem is that Sri Sri’s mega event is backed by politicians across the spectrum. He briefed the PM on the dimensions during their last meeting. He has cultivated his closeness to the NDA because he has ambitions of being a peace negotiator on the Naxal issue, insurgency in the Northeast or even with Pakistan. His political clout explains why the DDA willingly allotted him the venue despite the obvious concerns. For the event itself, top BJP and AAP leaders are part of the reception committee. The local MP, BJP’s Maheish Giri, is a close associate of Sri Sri. Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal had fallen out with the godman, but they seem to have made up. In fact, the preparations were being done in a clandestine manner and the furore would not have happened had not Manoj Mishra, a retired Indian Forest Service officer and environmental activist, stumbled across the construction activities in early December last year. He wrote to the lieutenant-governor of Delhi, Najeeb Jung—also chairman of DDA—on December 11, stating the green tribunal has banned all such activities on the flood plains of Yamuna since January 2015. He got no reply.
Power Company Sri Sri Ravi Shankar with PM Narendra Modi.
The matter was then referred to DDA, which gave permission to Art Of Living to host the mega event on December 15. Mishra wrote to AOL thrice. After he got no response, he took the matter to the NGT, which is when they constituted a high-powered committee.
The chairperson of the NGT, Justice Swatanter Kumar, told Outlook: “This is not a court order but a recommendation of a committee. We will look into the matter,” he says, adding that he can’t say how long it will take for action to be taken. Meanwhile, environmentalists are up in arms. Says Ravi Agrawal, director at Toxic Links: “How can Art of Living be destroying the environment that supports life?” Others point out that it is not just the ecology of the river bed that is damaged, crops of farmers have also been destroyed and people were displaced. Bharati Chaturvedi, a birder who champions the cause of waste management, says: “A sect is being allowed to hold a private event along our river, destroying the local ecosystem. This reduces its capacity to absorb and recharge groundwater. And, despite the chemical toilets for 35 lakh people, the Yamuna is likely to be saddled with a load of human waste.”
The birding community is aghast. Delhi has the second highest urban bird diversity in the world next to Nairobi and they claim the event will affect the adjoining Okhla Bird Sanctuary. Ecologists as well as officials in the Delhi government and the Union urban development ministry are worried that there could be ‘institutional land-grabbing’ involved where a riverbed is converted into real estate and merged with the city. They point to the 60-acre Millennium Bus Stand, which was constructed as a temporary structure to park 1,000 buses during the 2010 Commonwealth Games, on the flood plains. After six years, it’s still there. Till now, the Padma Vibhushan recipient’s grand show is still on. Delhi is blanketed with posters of a beatific Sri Sri announcing the event. After all, he has more than God on his side.