Holds No Water
The AOL Foundation’s defence of its decision to organise the World Cultural Festival on the banks of the Yamuna may not be convincing, but the inefficacy of the NGT and the Indian judicial system in the matter is also cause for concern
Abeer Kapoor Delhi
On July 28, the Shashi Shankar Committee, formed under the orders of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), comprising eminent academicians and environmentalists, submitted a damning report against the Art of Living (AOL) Foundation, the organisers of the World Cultural Festival on the banks of the Yamuna. The report confirmed that the festival had destroyed the ecology of the river’s floodplain.
The 47-page report states that the area between the Delhi-Noida Direct (DND) Flyway and the Barapullah Flyover, where the event was held, has been “totally destroyed”. The organisers have been accused of clearing all the vegetation on the floodplain, filling in and flattening the water bodies and all the depressions. In addition, the building of bridges and pontoons destroyed natural water bodies and compacted the land, causing both visible and invisible damage, and in many cases the loss has been irreversible. Even the direction of the river has been changed due to the forceful ripping out of the vegetation.
The report further states: “The floodplain has lost almost all of its natural vegetation – trees, shrubs, reeds, tall grasses, aquatic vegetation including water hyacinth. The vegetation also includes numerous microscopic forms of algae, mosses and some ferns, which inhabit the soil and water bodies. All of them have been destroyed in the area completely. Their total loss cannot be readily visualised and documented.”
The AOL Foundation has maintained that the committee was biased, unscientific, and not thorough in its research. In an email exchange with Hardnews, Sonia Madhok, a representative of AOL, said, “The Expert Committee had filed their initial report on the basis of a long walk that they took in the area. No scientific facts have been placed in the report or for that matter even in their final report. Any scientific assessment must have a quantifiable element to it. Even after four months, the committee has not been able to attach a quantifiable evaluation to the so-called damage that they have reported. This raises serious questions about the committee’s credibility.”
In February, when construction began in the 1,000-acre area cordoned off for the event, alarm bells rang in environment activism circles. The NGT was unimpressed with the way the event was being organised and Justice Swatanter Kumar reprimanded the Delhi Development Authority and Delhi Pollution Control Committee for giving clearances to the event in a matter of 15 days. The DDA claimed that it hadn’t understood the magnitude of the event. In response to the uproar, a committee was constituted to assess the environmental impact of the construction and the event at the venue. The NGT then decided to lock horns with AOL, demanding an immediate survey of the region.
A report submitted by the same panel on February 29 recommended strict action against the organisers. Initially a fine of Rs. 120 crore was slapped on AOL, but this was reduced to Rs 5 crore. The event was allowed to go ahead but came under strict scrutiny by environmentalists. AOL maintained that, far from causing any harm, they were actually helping to improve the region. They promised that only eco-friendly materials would be used, including organic enzymes to clean the river. Sri Sri Ravishankar posted a long article on his blog on the measures adopted by his group for improving the state of the river. All the structures were temporary, all the waste and shrubs were flattened; to help clean the river a series of ‘enzymes’ were being introduced.
The argument of improvement was dismissed and dubbed as ignorance by one environmentalist after another. In an interview with Hardnews in March, Ravi Agarwal, director of Toxics Link, an environment NGO, delivered a scathing attack on the organisers and their visible ignorance towards wetland ecology. He said, “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.”
AOL had initially refused to pay the Rs. 5 crore fine that the NGT had slapped on it. Days before the event, it submitted Rs. 25 lakh. In June it eventually paid the remainder, saying that the money was going towards the rejuvenation of the river. The release of the new report is being called a ploy to sully its name and that of its founder. The foundation has asked for a new committee to be set up, which according to it should be unbiased. The court has agreed to allow this. On September 28 the court will hear the case again.
The case unfolds on the terrain of different understandings or interpretations of the environment. Bulldozing and flattening the land and doing away with rocks, contours and depressions count as improvement for the foundation. Its understanding of wetland ecology is skewed, and its inability to comprehend that it is a precarious system is self-evident. It is the bridge between the water bodies and the land. It is home to a variety of plants, birds and several terrestrial animals for whom the preservation of the land is of utmost importance. According to environmentalist Satish Sinha, “[The] floodplain is part of the river basin and any major human activity will cause changes in its current status.”
The foundation has justified the construction by pointing to the several areas where residential buildings and other structures have been built. Its question is: the floodplain already has seen a lot of construction, so why don’t the courts pull those people up? Why only AOL? This hits at the already weak environmental legislation and the rampant disregard for it.
For many analysts, the NGT made a mistake when it reduced the fine from Rs 120 crore to only Rs 5 crore and allowed the event to take place. The court and the judicial system should have found their teeth, instead of allowing the event after overwhelming proof of environmental damage. Reducing the fine has set a precedent for future aberrations in the name of festivals and cultural events to alter and change the landscape in ecologically sensitive zones.