New Delhi: A cultural festival to be hosted by the Art of Living Foundation this weekend on the Yamuna floodplains in Delhi has angered environmental activists who are worried the event will damage the river’s critical marshland ecosystem.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) is expected to rule today on a petition challenging the choice of the site for the festival that the foundation says is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people.
The non-government Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan (YJA), which filed the petition, has said preparations for the festival that include land levelling, clearance of marshland vegetation and construction of a behemoth stadium – although a temporary structure – will harm the ecosystem.
The YJA has pointed out that the activity violates the NGT’s ruling in January 2015, which had prohibited any construction along riverine floodplains.
“What is most bothering for us is: who is doing this? This is an organisation that stands for peace and non-violence,” Manoj Misra, a former Indian Forest Service officer and the convener of the YJA, said.
Misra has written letters to Art of Living’s spiritual head Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, quoting the Gita , in an attempt to urge him to shift the cultural event to another site.
The letter extols the value of floodplains as sites rich in biodiversity and then cites the Gita. “Srimad Bhagwat Gita , perhaps the ultimate book on the science and art of living for all mankind, enunciates the key 39 attributes of a siddh bhakt (accomplished devotee) in shloka 13-19 of chapter 12,” Misra wrote in the letter. Some of these include: “one who is free of malice for any living being, one who does not threaten nor is threatened by any living being, one who is friends to all living beings.”
Misra’s letter says: “Your holiness, what is currently happening in the river bed in Delhi in preparation for the event (the 35th anniversary of the founding by your holiness of Art of Living), cannot be observing any of the above, since a large number of big and small plants and animals, including birds, are losing their habitat and existence.”
The Art of Living says it promotes peace across communities through “humanitarian projects, conflict resolution, sustainable rural development… and environmental sustainability”.
Ravi Shankar on Tuessday sought to dismiss suggestions that his project would damage the ecosystem. He told reporters that not a single tree had been cut in the run up to the World Cultural Festival that will be held from March 11 to 13. He said only four trees had been “trimmed”.
“We will leave the place after making a biodiversity park there. In the past, our volunteers have brought out 512 tonnes of garbage from the Yamuna. We have not cut trees, have just trimmed four. We want a clean Yamuna and we care about the environment,” Ravi Shankar said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to inaugurate the event on Friday but President Pranab Mukherjee, who was to attend the valedictory function, has pulled out. Sources said the Prime Minister’s participation would depend on the ruling of the tribunal today.
Environmental activists say their observations suggest the preparations for the event are spread over 1,000 acres of the floodplain.
“The soil beneath this floodplain has water. When the surface is altered through such activity, the soil may lose some of its porosity and damage the aquifer, it will damage the recharge potential of the floodplains,” said Vikram Soni, a scientist at the Jamia Milia University, New Delhi, who has conducted research on the Yamuna’s hydrology.
The YJA’s Misra said the construction activity has involved levelling of land and clearing of marshland vegetation.
“The vegetation along the floodplains is not just a decoration, it is a river’s roots and leaves. The site chosen for this event is a marshland area that serves as a filter to partially protect the river from the toxic drain water it receives from the city,” Misra said. “Floodplains are nature’s water treatment parks, keeping pollutants from reaching river water.”
The NGT has asked the Union environment ministry to explain why temporary construction on floodplains did not require environmental clearance. The tribunal has also sought an explanation on why the army is building a pontoon bridge on the Yamuna in preparation for the festival.
The Art of Living Foundation says it has taken permissions from all authorities, except from the police. According to PTI, the police permission is pending, subject to the approval of the fire department which usually takes a decision after construction is complete.
-The Telegraph Calcutta