I met Sri Sri Ravishanker a few days ago, with the sole purpose of convincing him to shift the venue of the so called "World Culture Festival" to celebrate the 35th anniversary of his Art of Living Foundation from the floodplains of the Yamuna river, in New Delhi.
But he said far from causing any threat to its ecology and health, he chose the banks of the Yamuna in Delhi to raise awareness about the need to clean up the river. He said his organisation had single handedly removed over 500 tonnes of garbage from the river.
He said as many as 35 lakh people are expected to attend the event and offered to set up a stall for me and even an opportunity to speak from the "seven acre stage", along with a VIP pass to attend the event that had been advertised as being attended by the prime minister and the president.
If the morning papers in Delhi on Monday saw large advertisements such as the one above, by the afternoon, officials in Rashtrapati Bhavan had let it be known that the president would not be attending the opening ceremony.
Perhaps the Supreme Commander of our armed forces was not amused by the news that engineering units of the Army had been seen constructing a pontoon-based floating bridge on the Yamuna. Television news channel NDTV reported that not one but two bridges were built in a week by army personnel.
"Army sources who asked not to be named confirmed to NDTV that 120 personnel were assigned to build the bridges, and that after expressing reservations about the task, senior officers made it clear that the organizers must accept liability for any accident that injures attendees".
This was not an isolated news-item. Earlier, Outlook magazine had reported:
An amazing sight hove into view when Outlook visited the site. Instead of private contractors, Indian army soldiers dressed in fatigues were busy constructing the pontoon bridges. If a godman can get the army to offer their services, presumably for free, to help him set up access to his temporary mini-city, it is testimony to the clout that Sri Sri wields.
Before this came to light, I had gone to the site to find out for myself if what Sri Sri told me was true and a saviour of the river Yamuna was being wrongly painted as the brother of the river – Yamraj, the God of Death. The petition by Manoj Mishra and others who have been campaigning against the event, have detailed the damage to the flora and fauna in the vicinity the event is likely to cause –indeed has already caused.
But as I saw and as is shown in the photographs that follows, none of the claims made by the Art of Living Foundation in its defence seem to hold. We don't need experts for this, the visual evidence is over-whelming.
The first point to note is that permission for this event was granted despite strict prohibition imposed by National Green Tribunal as late as January 2015, and over 1,000 acres of the floodplains are occupied by the organisers.
Large cranes and land movers have been deployed in the floodplains since last month to level the ground and make it event-ready for the 35 lakh people who are estimated to attend.
Hundreds of workers have been working at the festival site, so that these 35 lakh people can "chant for world peace". Not a single person, incidentally, was seen wearing any safety gear, cutting tons of steel and metal. The entire site was strewn with metal waste from the construction activity for the festival.
As found by the National Green Tribunal Expert Committee, our team too witnessed hundreds of land movers and cranes levelling the floodplains and filling small water-bodies around the site. Most of the trees have been removed. This area was known for being an active breeding ground for hundreds of rare bird species, but with the trees gone, all of it has been destroyed for this mega culture festival. Culture, it would seem, is the new vulture.
This so called world class stage is spread over seven acres and is estimated there will be as many as 35,000 musicians on it at one point.
Contrary to the claims of the organisers, no eco-friendly mediums have been used to construct either the stage or the seating area. Acres of land have been punctured using heavy machinery so as to withhold this mammoth stage and its spirited musicians.
These playful local village kids were the only ones having some fun, amused at this mega circus. This area was previously used by local farmers to grow vegetables and other crops. All their farms have been bulldozed, some of them who opposed have been booked by the Police under several charges. It remains to be found out if "sedition" was one of them.
The Art of Living claims that the height of the stage is 40-foot – it is for you to see what it looks like. This mammoth structure has bamboos coming out of tent-house iron scaffolding while the foundation has claimed only to have used "eco-friendly material like wood, mud, cloth, and scaffolding".
Several acres of land have been levelled with construction waste and concrete to make space for thousands of cars that need to be parked at the site. Several ramps have been constructed on the Delhi-Noida Direct flyover using concrete and construction waste so as to create direct and convenient access to the stage for VIPs.
Indeed, full-scale construction activity is still on at the site.
In all this mess, as we were departing, we were greeted by the sight of this holy cow, purifying the land with gaumutra.