NEW DELHI (TIP): The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has allowed Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s controversial three-day World Culture Festival to be held on the Yamuna floodplains starting on 11 March, Friday. However, the Art of Living (AOL) Foundation will have to develop the entire area as a biodiversity zone and pay Rs 5 crore green penalty for the event, the court directed on Wednesday. The fine amount will be reviewed further and the final amount will be fixed.
The NGT bench, headed by Justice Swatantra Kumar, also fined the Delhi Development Authority Rs 5 lakh for granting permission without conducting inspections. The court directed the Delhi Pollution Control Board Rs 1 lakh as penalty.
The tribunal also asked AOL to give an undertaking by Thursday that enzymes will not be released into Yamuna river and that no further degradation of environment will happen. Besides slapping the fines, the tribunal directed AOL to develop the entire area in question into a biodiversity park.
The NGT was moved over the alleged violation of environmental laws and polluting the Yamuna river over the event to be held from 11 – 13 March and expecting at least three lakh people from 155 countries.
The World Culture Festival entered into a controversy when environmental activists told the NGT that the event will destroy the fragile ecology of the Yamuna floodplains. The NGT pulled up the AOL Foundation and various government agencies including the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) for not conducting proper inspections and granting permission for the event despite a standing order by the NGT that states that no activity will be conducted on the Yamuna floodplains.
The tribunal’s order came on the pleas by NGOs and environmentalists who had sought cancellation of the festival on the ground that it would seriously endanger the fragile ecosystem on the riverbed.
Environmental activist Anand Arya, who filed the petition to stop the event, rued that over 1000-acres of the sensitive area between Delhi and Noida, predominantly marshland, stand shorn of even a “single blade” of grass.
During the hearing, the Water Resources ministry told the tribunal that it has not granted permission for the festival while another ministry said no clearance was required for temporary structures. Responding to questions from the green panel, the Water Resources ministry distanced itself from the controversy, saying, “We have not granted any permission regarding the event and no application is pending with us on the same.”
The Ministry of Environment and Forests, whereas, told the the bench that no environment clearance was required for setting up temporary structures on Yamuna flood plains. The ministry’s submission came after the bench pulled it up for not filing affidavit on environmental clearances.
It was informed by Delhi government that after inspecting the site, the police asked AOL to show structural safety clearance of pontoon bridge and vehicle parking clearance.
Delhi government also told the bench that Central Public Works Department (CPWD) has asked the foundation to build a separate stage for the Prime Minister due to issues over structural safety, a claim denied by AOL which said it was being built for better view of the event.
AOL, however, informed the bench that all necessary steps for safety of people have been taken as any untoward incident at venue will be detrimental to the country’s image.
Giving the details of the expenditure incurred on the event, the AOL foundation informed the green panel that a total of Rs 25.63 crore has been spent on the preparations.
The tribunal had questioned on Tuesday, the building up of pontoon bridge by the Army on river Yamuna for the festival and asked DDA as to who gave permission for setting it up.
DDA had informed the NGT that it granted permission for 24.44 hectare for holding of the event.
AOL had said it had satisfied the DDA for permission by fulfillng the condition that no permanent structures will be constructed on flood plains.
The AOL Foundation told the NGT that they are expecting three lakh attendees for the event even though they had claimed on their website that they are expecting 35 lakh attendees. After the second day of hearing on Wednesday, the NGT finally gave the nod for the event.
The allegations had earlier created a huge controversy, which resulted in President Pranab Mukherjee backing out of his commitment to attend the opening ceremony. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also expected to attend the event.
The issue even reached the Rajya Sabha when it was reported that the Army was building pontoon bridges for the event. Opposition members shouted slogans and demanded a reply from Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar.
“There is this person (Ravi Shankar) who is saying he is doing a cultural festival, and you put the army there to construct bridges. The government should shut this down immediately. In 1,000 acres, they are doing this. It will destroy Yamuna,” said Janata Dal-United (JD-U) leader Sharad Yadav.
Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) leader Sitharam Yechury alleged that it was “highly irregular” that the services of the Indian Army are used for such an event.
“Can the Indian Army be roped in to build pontoon bridges? It is highly irregular that the army is summoned to create facility for a private function,” Yechury said.
When the allegations were first made, the AOL Foundation on 28 February released a statement saying that it has followed all guidelines and directions of authorities and the National Green Tribunal.
“We have followed and further undertake to follow all the guidelines, recommendations, directions of the honourable court and the authorities extending us the permission to hold the World Culture Festival,” said the spokesperson. The Art of Living claimed that in strict adherence to the NGT direction, it has not done any construction or concretisation at the World Culture Festival site. “Further we have used only eco-friendly material like wood, mud, cloth, and scaffolding towards building a temporary stage for the purpose of holding a three-day festival,” it said.
“We have not blocked any river channel of river Yamuna by throwing any debris into it,” it said.
The NGT, which was also hearing a plea against AOL’s plan to release ‘enzymes’ into 17 drains joining Yamuna for cleaning the river, had constituted an expert committee headed by Water Resources Secretary to inspect the festival site.
The AOL, which is organising the function, will have yoga and meditation sessions, peace prayers by Sanskrit scholars and traditional cultural performances from India and abroad.