A dead Yamuna weeps for its survival
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Kapil Mishra, law minister in the Delhi government and chairperson of Delhi Jal Board, has lent his support to the controversial Art of Living event to be held on the Yamuna floodplains. He says he wants “more events to be held on the banks of the river”. This from a party that has been celebrating its commitment to green issues by flagging off the odd-even formula in the city. And this, for an event which every scientist has stated, on record, in proceedings before the National Green Tribunal (NGT), will damage the floodplains of the Yamuna forever.
Even as I write this, the countdown to the World Spiritual Festival has begun. The three-day cultural festival will see 35,000 musicians perform simultaneously on a seven-acre stage. Over 3.5 million people are expected at the event for which pontoon bridges were constructed across the river, on which no construction is permitted.
The floodplains are home to over 200 species of birds and, despite the pollution in the river, are still vibrant with biodiversity. They also help recharge groundwater for the city. Keeping the Yamuna free of encumbrances is vital for the local birdlife, yes, but even more critical for a water-scarce city such as Delhi.
Not one party has opposed this systematic destruction of the lifeline of Delhi. That’s why as a citizen of Delhi, I feel let down that every single arm of the government willingly gave permission for such a huge jamboree to be allowed on the banks of the Yamuna.
In April 2007, a similar event was planned on the same stretch: a shopping extravaganza on the lines of the Dubai Shopping Festival. The organizers boasted of a “spectacular display of fireworks and a carnival every night along with 25 restaurants and a food court and a footfall of over 30,000 visitors everyday”. The news channel I was part of then went behind the scenes and broadcast a story on how, overnight, reed beds had been flattened and the floodplain destroyed. Based on that, a petition was filed in court and a committee that had been set up by the high court to look at encroachments on the Yamuna was asked to step in.
Sadly, this time around, the clout of the organizers is such that even the army was asked to pitch in to help build pontoon bridges, and the prime minister is expected to attend the event. The organizers of the event have pleaded in court that it is too late now to shift the venue elsewhere, yet it seems odd that the city of Delhi, with all its infrastructure, had no other place to hold this mega event? What happened to the city’s stadia, or the Ramlila grounds or Pragati Maidan?
The head of the Art of Living Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has dismissed all criticism as being “biased” and assured people that he will “beautify” the region. With due respect to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, his views represent a limited notion of ecological restoration. Restoration of a habitat cannot happen overnight simply by the release of some enzymes or by removing debris. Further, beautifying an area doesn’t imply restoring it for biodiversity or being able to bring back the small waterbodies that were supporting avifauna or other micro-organisms. Already, the number of migratory birds that used to visit the floodplains of the Yamuna has gone down significantly because of construction on the Noida side. This event, as Professor A.K. Gosain (the head of the committee appointed by the National Green Tribunal) points out, has “left a permanent footprint on the floodplain”.
The Yamuna is not the Ganga. Even for the Kumbh Mela, one must not forget, water is diverted from different barrages before the mega event takes place to ensure there is a flowing river. By the time the Yamuna enters the city, it is a stressed-out, overworked river carrying the excreta and industrial waste of the city. That’s why the Art of Living’s argument in court—that if the Ganga can withstand the pressures of millions of people from the Kumbh, so can the Yamuna—is hollow.
The triumvirate of the Delhi Development Authority, the Delhi government and the central government has collectively ensured the systematic destruction of the floodplains. The citizens of Delhi must embrace the Yamuna issue as their own, just as they did the odd-even formula. They must ask their government why it allowed an event on the banks of a river which is already in peril. Mega events on the floodplains of the river are an absolute no; unfortunately, this event will only open the floodgates for many such requests. In the meantime, an already dead river weeps for its survival.
Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World.