ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE

These pictures (perhaps) show why President Mukherjee opted out of Sri Sri Ravishanker's mega event

Not just environment regulations were flouted. Reports also point to army personnel being deployed to help construct pontoon bridges on the river Yamuna.

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".

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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.

Photo Credit: Vimlendu Jha
Photo Credit: Vimlendu Jha

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.

Photo Credit: Vimlendu Jha
Photo Credit: Vimlendu Jha

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.

Photo Credit: Vimlendu Jha
Photo Credit: Vimlendu Jha

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.

Photo Credit: Vimlendu Jha
Photo Credit: Vimlendu Jha
Photo Credit: Sara Hylton
Photo Credit: Sara Hylton

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.

Photo Credit: Vimlendu Jha
Photo Credit: Vimlendu Jha

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.

Photo Credit: Vimlendu Jha
Photo Credit: Vimlendu Jha

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.

Photo Credit: Vimlendu Jha
Photo Credit: Vimlendu Jha

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".

Photo Credit: Sara Hylton
Photo Credit: Sara Hylton
Photo Credit: Vimlendu Jha
Photo Credit: Vimlendu Jha

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.

Photo Credit: Sara Hylton
Photo Credit: Sara Hylton

Indeed, full-scale construction activity is still on at the site.

Photo Credit: Sara Hylton
Photo Credit: Sara Hylton
Photo Credit: Vimlendu Jha
Photo Credit: Vimlendu Jha

In all this mess, as we were departing, we were greeted by the sight of this holy cow, purifying the land with gaumutra.

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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.

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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.