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World Culture Festival: Art of Killing a River

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The NGT had slapped a fine of Rs 5 crore on the Art of Living for it to proceed with its cultural program on the floodplains of the Yamuna. Yet, environment concerns remain unresolved
By Dinesh C Sharma


Earth excavators, road rollers, trucks carrying steel rods and wooden planks. Thousands of workers constructing a massive structure of scaffoldings, temporary roads, while army jawaans lay pontoon bridges. This is how the Yamuna floodplains in East Delhi looked like when it was being prepared to host an event organized by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of Art of Living (AOL). Though the objective of the organizers was to get AOL into the record books for holding the largest musical show, the event will actually be remembered for flouting environmental laws right under the nose of central and state governments. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) which heard a petition against the event held that construction on the floodplains by AOL has caused damage to “the environment, ecology, biodiversity and aquatic life of the river” and slapped an interim penalty of Rs 5 crore on AOL under Sections 15 and 17 of the NGT Act.

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Damp squib: Artists take shelter under a makeshift cover on the stage as rains lash the AOL

Final compensation for the damage caused will be settled later. Meanwhile in an interview to NDTV, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar had said that he would not pay the fine.


CJI Thakur slams environment agencies

The judiciary too has expressed its concern over the way environment protection agencies functioned in India.

Speaking at an event organized by the National Green Tribunal and the Environment Ministry in New Delhi, recently, Chief Justice of India TS Thakur blamed the environment protection bodies for their lackadaisical approach towards implementing and enforcing environment laws.

“More often than not, the Supreme Court has to step in to protect the environment because of the failure of the state machinery.” Thakur pointed out. He further added, “the Supreme Court has had to innovate mechanisms to safeguard the health of the people from toxic pollutants… this situational necessity would not have arisen if the enforcement of laws by state bodies was as effective as they should be. At the heart of the court’s role in environment-related cases lies an ineffective, indifferent or cavalier approach of those charged with the duty of enforcing the laws” he said.

He said that the issue of lack of a diligent and honest implementation of laws and orders of the court was highlighted many times, but no significant changes have taken place.

Significantly, the CJI made these comments right in front of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar.


The enormity of the event—World Culture Festival (WCF)—became evident towards the end of 2015, when the publicity material of AOL claimed that the three-day event would be “one of the biggest cultural gatherings in the recent times, spread over a venue of 1000 acres and expected to be attended by 3.5 million people from 155 countries”. It was also mentioned that nearly 38,000 artists would perform on one single stage. The organizers have said “the stage is going to baffle you”.

There was also a long list of dignitaratti who attended this cult fest. Among them were Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu, Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu, Andhra Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, former home minister LK Advani, BJP president Amit Shah, Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, Minister for Science, Technology and Earth Sciences Harsh Vardhan and ministers of state Piyush Goel and VK Singh.


“I know Sri Sri Ravi Shankar very well. I watched him closely when I was the governor of Karnataka. I do not see him as a spiritual guru, but as a political man. He wants to establish himself as the Raj Guru, and this event is a step in that direction. Governments are supporting him, both at the center and the state. Even Arvind Kejriwal is doing so because of the role Ravi Shankar played during the Anna Hazare movement in supporting it.
It’s unfortunate that the World Culture Festival, organized by the Art of Living, took place on the ecologically-sensitive Yamuna bed, violating environment norms. It’s totally disastrous.
When he adopted the belligerent posture of not paying the fine of `5 crore imposed by the National Green Tribunal, the message that goes out is that he wants to spread anarchy.”

HR Bharadwaj, former Union law minister and former governor of Karnataka


Foreign visitors included Norwegian PM Kjell Magne Bondevik, Paraguay justice minister Carla Bacigalupo and former PM of France Dominique de Villepin.

Spread over seven acres, it is the biggest stage ever made in the world. Holding such a massive event on the riverbed predictably involved the use of men and machines on an unprecedented scale. Though AOL has been insisting that the musical arena has been constructed on the banks, anyone driving past the nearby DND flyway knows that the organizers are lying.


Violations Galore

“The floodplains have been drastically tampered with while destroying the natural flow of the river, reeds, grasses, natural vegetation on the river bed. It has further disturbed the aquatic life of the river and destroyed water bodies and wet lands on the flood plains, which were in existence. We find that the permission (granted by DDA) is not in consonance with the orders of the NGT and in fact is in excess of the powers vested in DDA which runs contrary to the spirit of the judgment of the Tribunal. On true construction of Section 25 read with Section 33A of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, we have no hesitation in holding that Delhi Pollution Control Committee has failed to discharge its statutory obligation despite the fact that the Foundation had submitted an application for obtaining its consent. The stand of MoEF is contrary to the EIA Notification, particularly with respect to development of an area of more than 50 ha. as contained in the EIA Notification, 2006.”

Order issued by NGT on March 9, 2016

“Required ‘no objection certificates’ of various agencies from Law and Order, traffic management, fire safety and electrical point of view have not been received so far. Due to non-receipt of NOCs from various agencies as well as information/documents from the applicant, no Performance License has been issued for the programme till date.”

Status report filed by Delhi Police on February 26, 2016

“The entire area of the floodplain between the river and DND flyover has been leveled flat. The small water bodies that existed earlier have been filled up and all the natural vegetation has been uprooted and the site compacted. Construction debris have been dumped especially on some of the roads that are constructed along the river margin. Besides the natural floodplain vegetation, even most of the trees have been removed or lopped. The floodplain has been completely destroyed; natural vegetation consisting of reeds and trees has been completely removed; and large number of birds and other natural life that was supported by the floodplain has vanished due to this destruction.”

Report of four-member expert committee headed by Shashi Shekhar, Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, February 20, 2016

“A massive activity of mauling a huge tract of the floodplain of Yamuna close to DND is underway. It is very difficult to capture even with photographs and the impact can only be visualized after going to the site. All kinds of JCB machines are plying there. Lorries are moving in and out of the site compacting the soil with every move. The site has been cleared of all natural vegetation and consolidated with machinery. It appears that the site has been raised with the help of JCBs. It can be seen that the edge close to DND is still having some part of the wetland, while adjoining area is raised. A huge amount of debris and construction waste has been dumped into the Yamuna main channel close to the location of the pontoon bridge.”

Field report of AK Gosain (IIT Delhi), February 16, 2016


ONGOING CONSTRUCTION

A petition filed before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in February raised the issue of conversion of a large area of the floodplains on the west bank by compacting and leveling. The extent and expanse of construction not only required environmental clearance under the provisions of the Environment Protection Act and EIA notification but also violated directions passed by NGT on January 13, 2015, that prohibited any construction activity in the demarcated floodplains of the Yamuna. The tribunal had noted that “indiscriminate dumping of debris and construction waste is a direct source of not only pollution of the river, but even the environment and ecology as a whole”. It had directed all public authorities, municipal corporations and concerned departments to take effective steps to protect the floodplains.

As the activity initiated by AOL appeared to be a violation of this 2015 order, Manoj Misra, convener of a citizen movement called Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, who had filed that petition, decided to approach NGT once again. Misra is a retired officer of the Indian Forest Service and has been running a campaign to save the river since 2007. He lives in Mayur Vihar Phase I, across Yamuna, in east Delhi and could actually see the destruction of the river floodplains first-hand.

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Misra first wrote to the Lt Governor of Delhi on December 11, 2015, and also to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in January 2016 about impact on the ecology as well as the livelihood of farmers in the floodplains.

Another letter was sent to the president, the prime minister and the Delhi chief minister by a group of citizens. When none of this evoked any response, Misra knocked on the doors of NGT.

ANOTHER FESTIVAL

The site chosen by AOL for the festival is the same as the one chosen for the Times Global Village festival which was planned to be held every year for a period of 10 years. However, a writ petition filed in 2007 by Anand Arya in the Delhi High Court challenged the holding of this festival, citing environmental issues of riverine habitat and revival of the Yamuna. The High Court appointed a panel—Yamuna-Removal of Encroachments Monitoring Committee—headed by Justice Usha Mehra. The committee, in its report, had recommended that the organizers be asked to remove all temporary or semi-pucca structures from the site and dismantle all roads and access ramps. It also said that all three organizers—Delhi Tourism Development Corporation, Noida Toll Bridge Company and e4e—be imposed heavy damages for “causing damage to the environment and ecology of the river system and for adversely affecting the ground water recharge potential of the flood plain of the river”. The Court accepted the report and sealed the future of the festival.

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Too wet for comfort?: Showers and hailstorm take visitors by surprise on Day One

Overlooking such observations, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA)—an agency under the Ministry of Urban Development—permitted AOL to hold the festival on the riverbed. This was the first violation. It was revealed during the NGT hearing that DDA had cancelled permission for the event in November 2015 on the grounds that the expected gathering would be too large for the floodplains to endure.

However, permission was granted again on December 15, 2015, after AOL told DDA that it had already made large-scale preparations for the event. DDA’s counsel could give no convincing answer when the bench asked what had changed from the earlier reasons of rejection (“the site being an active floodplain and ecologically sensitive and covered by the NGT embargo”) so as to give permission later. DDA also could not explain why the approval letter mentions only “maintaining a safe distance from the river edge” without specifying the safe distance.


Yamuna Case: Many Twists and Turns

In the last quarter century, environment activists have knocked at the doors of judiciary several times to bring to courts’ notice the degradation caused to the river floodplain

-Acting on a newspaper report about pollution in the Yamuna, the Supreme Court issued a suo motu notice to various authorities in 1994. Since then, the Court has passed various orders in Writ Petition No. 725 with the objective of converting the river into a “salubrious and pristine Yamuna”. The case covered dumping of sewage and industrial waste in the river, encroachment of floodplains and wetlands.

-In 2007, a group of concerned citizens and organizations approached the High Court in their writ petition (W.P. (C) 6729 and 7506 of 2007) challenging construction activity in the riverbed like the Commonwealth Games Village and Delhi Metro Rail Corporation depot. All government agencies and laboratories contended that the construction would not pose any danger to the ecology of the river.

-An interim order by the High Court in 2008 established another committee to advise the court on the potential impact of construction in the riverbed. This order was challenged in the Supreme Court, which, in July 2009 gave the go-ahead for CWG village. The apex court cited its order in the Akshardham case where it had concluded that the distance between the river and the temple was nearly 1,700 m. It applied the same logic to the CWG village.

-The National Green Tribunal (NGT) was legislated in October 2010 and it became functional in 2011. In February 2012, case No 6 of 2012 (Manoj Misra vs GOI and Othrs) pleading for prevention of filling up of water bodies in the floodplain through dumping of waste including debris was filed. In 2013, another petition seeking prevention of covering and concretisation of stormwater drains in the city was filed.

-In its order dated January 13, 2015, the NGT said: “We direct and prohibit carrying on of any construction activity in the demarcated flood plain henceforth.” In 2016, Manoj Misra approached the NGT again citing the AOL festival as a violation of its 2015 order.


POLLUTOR PAYS

Curiously, the agency admitted that construction was happening right next to the river and even within the river (in the form of pontoon bridges). But its lawyers argued that stopping the festival at this late stage would not help. This was after a four-member panel appointed by the NGT had estimated that the total cost of restoration of the floodplains on the western side of the river alone is Rs 120 crore, and wanted AOL to pay this amount as per “polluter pays” principle.

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Caught unawares: Performers protect themselves from the rain

Floodplains are not wastelands or open spaces which can be “developed” as commonly thought. Floodplains are essential ecological continuum of healthy rivers, providing necessary space to rivers during flooding and recharging of associated aquifers. They play a critical role in facilitating the self-cleansing ability of rivers, provide habitat to riparian plants and animals and create wetlands which help in biological cleaning of waste water. “Construction of the dais, access roads and other structures on the Yamuna floodplains involved clearing of the floodplains as well as illegal and unauthorized dumping of debris. The floodplain has been cleared and leveled. It has severely devastated natural character of floodplain and its biodiversity,” Misra explained.

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The show begins: Musicians regale the audience on the first night of the festival

An event of such an enormity within the active floodplain of the river would set a dangerous precedent which others could cite for similar permissions. This would be detrimental to the health of the river.

While President Pranab Mukherjee had refused to attend the festival, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the event on March 11, on a rain-drenched evening.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. A well organised summary and very factual. Somehow, another violation of NGT Order/Undertaking Given for not releasing any Enzymes was violated with impunity. While this may be ‘construed by some as violation of ‘civil nature’ but is a ‘criminal violation’ keeping in view the provisions of Water Act that invite ‘criminal law and punishment attached thereto’. Hope some one in Government is Listening that ‘even a criminality has been committed’ and initiates action.

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