Home >Politics >Policy >Two activists on the fight against Sri Sri’s Yamuna bank event

The World Culture Festival (WCF), the controversial event organized by the Art of Living foundation on the floodplains of the Yamuna over the weekend, went ahead despite protests by environmental activists.

The event took place in the backdrop of an order passed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which allowed it to be held subject to the payment of 5 crore in environmental compensation by Art of Living before it commenced on Friday.

An extension of three weeks was later granted for the entire payment to be made after the foundation paid 25 lakh.

The staging of the event was challenged by a petition brought by Manoj Misra, who is the convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, an umbrella group of non-governmental organizations and individuals that has been espousing the cause of the Yamuna river since 2007. He was joined by Anand Arya, an activist, in petitioning for a cancellation of the event on grounds that it would cause irreparable damage to the Yamuna’s floodplains.

In an interview, Misra and Arya spoke about the concerns that led them to file the petition, the event and its aftermath. Edited excerpts:

When and how did you get to know about Art of Living’s activities around the floodplains of river Yamuna?

Misra: Early in December 2015, we were informed by local farmers that some survey work was going on and that their fields could be taken over for parking for a big event. Learning that it was being planned by AOL, we went to their website and got the confirmation, although the information there was absolutely vague, talking of getting some 3.5 million people to a ground opposite the Mayur Vihar Phase 1 metro station. We immediately wrote on 11 December 2015 to the lieutenant governor raising our concerns on any such plans in the floodplains.

Arya: I was not initially involved but wanted to highlight the issue of enzymes (which were not tested or approved by concerned authority) being released into the Yamuna by AOL to clean it and joined the cause.

What were your main concerns regarding activities being undertaken by the Art of Living foundation for holding the WCF along the floodplains?

Misra: Our concerns originated from the NGT judgment dated 13 January 2015 which had prohibited any developmental activity and construction in the floodplains and had actually approved an expert report for the restoration of the floodplains. We noticed that the work being carried out along the floodplains was in brazen violation of the said judgment and its prohibitions.

What steps did you take before seeking judicial recourse in the matter?

Misra: We first wrote about our concerns to the lieutenant governor on 11 December 2015. This was followed by three letters to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (the founder of Art of Living) himself on 7 January, 22 January and 8 February and another letter to the governor on 5 February 2016. With no response from any of them we turned to National Green Tribunal as the last resort.

In the order passed by the tribunal on 13 January 2015, it had issued directions prohibiting construction work in the floodplains area and issued recommendations which would ultimately lead to cleaning up and restoring the area. Then, what motivated you to bring this petition?

Misra: The reason that the prohibitions set by the said judgment were being flouted in full public view and both (executive as well as the project proponent) were not heeding to pleas to change the venue.

Arya: I saw that the aspect of enzymes being released into the Yamuna on the pretext of cleaning it had not been highlighted. Without any permissions from concerned authorities, enzymes were continuing to be released, which is when I decided to approach the tribunal.

The tribunal has cited a delay in bringing this matter to their attention as one of the reasons for not cancelling the event. What caused this delay?

Misra: In our understanding there was no delay on our part, since it had always been our policy to first sound out the executive authority and only once these (options) have been exhausted, we approached the judiciary, as the last resort.

The court has also quoted the situation as that of “fait accompli" which means the damage could not have been prevented from taking place at the time that we approached the tribunal. However, on 8 February, when we approached NGT, there was hardly any construction at the site.

Additionally since it was a direct violation of the NGT judgement, it was more necessary for the concerned authorities (the Delhi Development Authority and the Delhi government) to have prevented it from happening. But they unfortunately chose instead to facilitate it. That they failed in their duty has resulted in their getting pulled up and some heavily fined by the NGT.

Arya: If we had come earlier, the tribunal would have perhaps said that we had approached them at a premature stage.

While the NGT had given a green signal to the event under its order of 9 March, it had imposed an environmental compensation of 5 crore on the foundation. Did you see this as a satisfactory order or were you expecting a cancellation of the event all together?

Misra: First of all, the amount of 5 crore as environmental compensation is only the “initial" amount, which should get enhanced many times over once the principal committee has assessed the damage on the ground on both the west and the east bank.

But environmental devastation of this nature cannot be either compensated or restored easily. We were certainly expecting a cancellation, more so since the violations related to an order of the same court.

Although the event was not cancelled, the tribunal did pull up concerned authorities including the DDA, ministry of environment and forests, ministry of water resources, etc., and ensured that preventive measures are taken by all authorities during the event. In hindsight, can this be seen as an interim relief considering that the event was allowed to be held?

Misra: This only time can tell since what has actually happened to the site can become visible only once the event is over. From the face of it, the event is has taken place as scheduled, but whether all concerned authorities were responsible and did their duty will have to seen later.

Arya: It is akin to a situation where you catch a thief and then let him go. What they have done is damaging in the sense that it violated the “polluter pays" principle determined by the Supreme Court under which the polluter has to pay for damage done. It seems to have been converted into a principle of “pay and pollute".

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