Why the Art of Living celebrations signal the death of Delhi's Yamuna floodplains

Sri Sri Ravi Shanker’s organisation plans to hold a festival between March 11 to 13, flouting all environmental regulations.

Sri Sri Ravi Shanker, the founder of The Art of Living is on record as having said:

“You know rivers are considered very sacred. Rivers are very sacred in our culture… Whenever you consider something sacred you preserve it, you honour it, and you see that you don’t pollute it.

“We have always used the water of holy rivers like Ganga and Yamuna to purify ourselves, but today we have reached a point where we have to purify this water. So we are waging a war against the pollution in the Yamuna.”

But his Art of Living Foundation seems to have a different notion, or at least seems to have changed its mind, about what “sacred” means as it prepares to celebrate its 35th anniversary on the floodplains of the Yamuna River, in New Delhi, with a three day festival from March 11 to 13, 2016. It is estimated that about 35 lakh people are likely to attend the celebrations.

Various inspection committees, comprising professors from Indian Institutes of Technology and scientists and officials and former officials from the ministry of forests and environment, have unanimously agreed that large-scale damage has already been caused by the construction and preparations for the event, even as various lawsuits were filed to prevent just that eventuality.

Professor AK Gossain of IIT Delhi, in his official submission based on an inspection he was asked to be part of on February 16, summed up the situation succinctly.

“A massive activity of mauling a huge tract of land of the flood plain of Yamuna close to the DND is underway. It is very difficult to capture even with the help of photographs… the site has been cleared of all natural vegetation…. 5 Pontoon bridges are under construction…. a huge amount of construction waste and debris has been dumped into the Yamuna… in a nutshell, the activity cannot be termed as a benign activity and shall have a permanent impact on the floodplain.”

Other committees and experts have come up with similar warnings, offering no support for the planned festival.

An ecology destroyed

The flattened areas were, until recently, beautiful riverine habitat. In these reed beds and riverbanks, previously, we would see river lapwings strutting, their long, yellow legs on display. We would often enjoy the exhilarating sight of beautiful red avadavats, or munias, swinging on the grass, while assorted flitting warblers were heard in the background, identified by their songs. It was very much the kind of riverside that buzzed with birdsong and life. Right next door, this very ecology was certified as valuable enough to be protected as the Okhla Bird Sanctuary.

The flat, sterile mud flooring that has been created now is devoid of such life – and it’s going to get worse. The many chemical and bio toilets that will be installed will add to the despoilment of the area, unless the Art of Living team decides – or is made – to take the processed human waste and its remains with them after the event. The sheer noise and human presence is bound to have a devastating effect on the habitat.

When the estimated 35 lakh people throng to this event, the rest of Delhi and Noida will be cruelly punished with traffic and route diversions, not to mention enormous jams. This will be the gift of the government and the Art of Living to the common public and all those who may not want to celebrate but may still want to commute in peace.

Green claims

A few Art of Living supporters have countered by pointing to their green credentials, claiming to have already taken environment-friendly measures. Arguing that debris was already dumped on the land they were legally allocated by the Delhi Development Authority, these supporters have claimed that they planned to only use eco-friendly materials, create temporary structures, and that they will not only remove the trash but also plant trees on the land after the event.

Experts point out that this river-bed is not suited for trees and that none of these measures are such as could help mitigate the damage caused. Once an eco-system is disrupted, it cannot be rearranged. It may be restored but that process could take many years.

What is clear is that the permissions should never have been given by the DDA in the first place. Indeed, as environmentalists Anand Arya and Manoj Misra have argued repeatedly, holding the event in the floodplains is against all environment laws, and goes against the judicial orders of Delhi High Court (2006) and the National Green Tribunal (2015).

Claims and actions

Farmers surviving on this plot of land were removed to make place for this event, violating the fundamental tenet of equality before law. The State has thus clearly failed in its constitutional duty.

But it is not just the state. The Art of Living team should have stuck to their proclaimed love for the environment in their actions, and moved the venue of their festival to Ramlila Grounds, or a stadium. It cannot be an excuse that they decided to hold their 35th birthday party with music and a picnic in an ecologically fragile zone only because they were given permission to do so.

It is extremely disappointing that, despite a range of well-informed advisors, the Art of Living Foundation chose not to give up this venue in public interest. Indeed, they have set a bad precedent and their justification, employed by their spokesperson, only makes it worse:

“If we look back, all festivals have been happening on the banks of rivers since ages like the Kumbh Mela is happening every six to 12 years next to the river Ganga. So this is like a Kumbh Mela where thousands of people will gather for a greater good."

The people of India from diverse backgrounds are correct in believing that the Yamuna and its banks, like any other river and its banks, belong to each and every citizen. Indeed, the commons – riverbeds, scrub lands, local parks, roads, the air – belong to all of us. Giving them off to any sect or private organisation, regardless of what they profess to be, even for a short period is like allowing a private party to steal from the common pool. It is abetment of theft, punishable by law. And indeed, it should be punished because we expect our governments – both state and centre – to protect and preserve the commons for everyone. They’ve failed us.

Bharati Chaturvedi is the director of the Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.


During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.