If this is the nature of the environmental governance, then all bets are off: Ravi Agarwal

Published: March 12, 2016 - 19:48 Updated: March 14, 2016 - 13:46

There is a myopic understanding of nature and its destruction that is on display at World Cultural Festival, which they have organised by bull-dozing environmental policy and the ecology of the region with the help of government support.

Abeer Kapoor New Delhi

Ravi Agarwal is Director of Toxics Link, an environmental NGO in New Delhi. The organisation has done extensive work and research on the Yamuna floodplains. They have conducted two studies on the river and its floodplains; one is a long-term multi-seasonal study on the toxicity in the river, which include the presence of chemicals and heavy metals. The second study done in association with the University of Sussex was to look at the contamination of vegetables grown around the river. Other than being an environmental activist, Agarwal is an artist as well.

While speaking to Hardnews, Agarwal gives a scientific perspective independent of the politics of the day; he raises questions about how the people behind Art of Living's World Cultural Festival are unaware of wetland ecology, the usage of enzymes and the haphazard way the permissions were granted.

Could you explain the impact that the World Cultural Festival will have on the Yamuna Bank?

I would like to issue a caveat at the very beginning, the perspective I give is a scientific one and not a political one.

Wetland ecology  supports a particular kind of life structure which has an intimate relationship with both the water and the soil. The vegetation in wetlands is very different from the vegetation of a forest, so there are different types of trees that one would see here than in a forest and smaller animals who are a part of this complex biodiversity.

The organisers of the World Cultural Festival do not understand wetland ecology. And when they say they haven’t cut any trees, it shows a limited understanding of what constitutes both nature and its destruction. The trees that they are cutting aren’t the same ones found in Corbett national park. If the vegetation they are destroying doesn’t fit their understanding of forest cover, it doesn’t mean that it is not significant. Brij Gopal, one of India’s foremost wetland ecologists, has alluded to this in the National Green Tribunal Report about how due to the event they have flattened the land and by doing that they have destroyed it. Their persistence to carry on with the festival is proof that they don’t understand this sort of science.

The second point is how they claim to have used enzymes made by over 10,000 households across the country to clean the river. A foreign organism introduced in any ecological system is one of the most harmful things. It’s not like cleaning clothes with a new detergent. When they create a narrative of improvement associated with the enzymes, and in a television interview Sri Sri Ravishankar refers to both Japan and China, who have previously used enzymes, he fails to recognise that these are all very specialised areas and need proper clearances and studies to understand which enzymes have to go where. 

The organisers of the World Cultural Festival do

not understand wetland ecology. And when

they say they haven’t cut any trees, it shows a

limited understanding of what constitutes both

nature and its destruction 

The third point stressed by them, is that only eco-friendly materials were used for construction. It is, of course, true that eco-friendly materials are better than non-eco-friendly materials. However, this is a very delicate ecosphere and the intervention in itself is harmful. So it’s not a question of which material you use, but a matter of constructing in an area, which may not respond well to it. Over and above this you have a large number of footfalls, which are further going to impact the ecology of the region. As a result of this pressure, it is going to take a few years to recover, just like a forest recovers after a fire. The three reasons stated above make it evident that the organisers don’t understand ecology. 

No one had imagined so much land would be given away in one go. The floodplain is a water recharge area, which means that it has a deep clean pool of groundwater. Nearly 30 % of Delhi's water comes from the flood plains. If you do something to the flood plains, you’re reducing the water availability in the city.

The idea of the World Cultural Festival resembling the Kumbh Mela is incorrect. The Mela unlike this festival has an entirely different ecological paradigm, it has a different support system around it and has an established relationship with water. The Ganga is larger and bigger and can accommodate the population that participates in the Kumbh.

The Yamuna, on the other hand is a river with very little water in it and has an intensive city of 17 to 20 million people around it who are dependent on its water. Several court orders have been passed to ensure the longevity of the water source. It is critical for the city to understand that, in the event of a permanent structure, like  this one, the river has only two options, it will either go upstream or downstream. 

If this is the nature of the environmental

governance, then all bets are off. You can keep

fighting all your life for better laws and

enforcement, but to what effect when those who

have opposed the event have been called

‘anti-national’ on live television? 

It is not a question of what they have done, but what they are doing here. They have built a narrative of good intentions, and I agree that they are not bad people, and I have nothing to say about them personally.

The second problem is the speed with which the government granted clearance. From personal experience, in 2011, there was an event that I was a part of; an art show near the banks of the river, it was at a park that was already functioning, there would be no construction, and the point was to have people come to the river. Despite support from the Delhi Government of that time and the German embassy it took us nearly a year to get the permission.

Despite the issues raised by Manoj Mishra, they got clearance in fifteen days. The sequence of events that we have witnessed, the ease with which the permissions were obtained and the disregard for the orders of the courts, raise important questions. If this is the nature of the environmental governance, then all bets are off. You can keep fighting all your life for better laws and enforcement, but to what effect when those who have opposed the event have been called ‘anti-national’ on live television? This question is no longer about the nation or nationalism, this is about the State stepping in to get clearances and receiving support from the highest authority. This support leads to someone taking a moral high ground just because s/he has a Padma Bhushan  or is revered amongst his/her followers or the state probably likes him/her very much. 

However an event like this cannot lead to the

Yamuna being cleaned, this event is not a water

filtration plant. The only way the river can be

revitalised is by stopping the pollutants at the


This is now a recurring issue. During the Commonwealth Games, they built buildings all over the city and later said that they had made a mistake. Similarly with the Akshardham temple, on completion, the government said that they made a mistake.  Obviously, people see the land around the river, as free land, which can be used in whatever way. 

Sri Sri Ravishankar has been defiant and has shown no regard for the democratic processes of the country. If you break down the institutions of the state, like Indira Gandhi did during the emergency,  then you can forget about everything. There is nothing left when you openly defy court orders by saying we won’t give the money! And continue claiming that no wrong was done. It's curious when you completely disregard the court, scientists and civil society and carry on with something that you have a vested interest in.

These are worrying facts. We have to keep the narrative straight and focused. What has been done follows no system of logic and should not have been allowed.

Hasn’t this helped in bringing attention to Yamuna issue and some improvement?

This festival is not going to help in the cleaning of the riverbank; it's dead because of sewage that is flowing into the river. Even if they manage the floodplain, the river is not going to get any cleaner because of this event. This mela is not a water filtration plant. The only way the river can be revitalised is by stopping the pollutants at the source. Can this festival help in holding the polluters accountable? No.The organisers have just used the land to promote their own cause, there is no correlation between the reduction in the toxicity and effluents in the water. This event on the banks of Yamuna will only add to the pollution.