The permission granted to the Art of Living to hold a three-day-long World Culture Festival on the Yamuna floodplains next month is just the latest example of officially-sanctioned encroachment on the Yamuna floodplains. The Art of Living event – to mark the organisation's 35th anniversary – is scheduled for March 11-13, and is expected to attract thousands of visitors from India and all over the world.

Environmentalists moved the National Green Tribunal on the issue 10 days ago and last Friday, the tribunal directed a third inspection of the site after two earlier inspections – one headed by IIT-Delhi Professor AK Gosain and the second by the Delhi Development Authority – submitted contradictory reports.

While the Delhi Development Authority report said no digging work was done at the site, the report prepared Professor Gosain and his team said that the preparations on the floodplains violated the green tribunal’s January 2015 order regarding the floodplains. The report said:

“The site has been cleared of all natural vegetation and consolidated with the machinery. It appears that the site has been raised with the help of JCBs (mechanical excavators)... A gigantic stage made of steel rods is under preparation that is proposed to house thousands of artists performing simultaneously. Five pontoon bridges (two on Yamuna, three on Barapullah) are under construction.”

The steady encroachment of the Yamuna floodplains has raised a few questions: Can the Yamuna sustain the rampant commercialisation of its floodplains? Are there national or state legislations that provide statutory protection to rivers as an ecological entity? Environmentalist Manoj Misra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, a civil society campaign to save the river, was one of those who approached the National Green Tribunal over the permission given to the Art of Living event. He discusses some of these issues.

Since 2006, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan has been working on a public campaign to protect the river Yamuna – Delhi’s lifeline. Your writings suggest that the main problem with the river is one of commercialisation of its floodplains. What is the impact of this on the river and its floodplains?
We have focused on the protection of the floodplains of rivers as being top priority and of no less critical importance than maintaining environmental flows in them because of the problem in the current understanding of rivers and everybody's obsession with merely cleaning them as an end in itself. When we restrict our goal to cleaning our rivers, we end up equating them with just the water flowing in them, as if our rivers are no more than manmade canals. Therein lies the root cause of all our failures with river cleaning efforts since 1994, when the Ganga Action Plan was launched with much fanfare.

We must understand that a river, an ecosystem, is a longitudinal and lateral unbroken continuum whose floodplains form a natural extension of it, and where many river-related functions like aquifer recharge, natural cleaning of surface waters, habitat of riparian flora and fauna, and completion of the life cycle of many aquatic species take place.

Floodplains have often been compromised by building embankments close to the river channel and then utilising the land thus presumed to have been secured from flooding for uses like human habitation, industries, chemical agriculture or mining of sand etc.

What are the prerequisites of a healthy river?
We believe that a healthy river must flow as well as flood freely. To flood is as natural a phenomenon in rivers as are low ambient temperatures in winter and high ambient temperatures in summers. So when man tries to control floods he/she is indulging in an unnatural act. The fact is that when we try to control floods, they turn far more devastating than they would be otherwise for humans inhabiting in or near the floodplains.

A river is a natural entity and it has all the capability to meet the needs of all those dependent on it, including humans, provided it is allowed to be and not looked upon just as a channel of utilisable water.

Encroachments of the river’s floodplains had happened earlier with the Commonwealth Games Village, the Delhi Metro depot etc. What is the stand of the High Court of Delhi and the National Green Tribunal on this? Is the Environment Impact Assessment Notification under the Environment (Protection) Act silent on this sort of encroachment? Has this issue not been addressed in the Delhi Development Authority’s Master Plan 2021?
There are still no national or state legislations that provide statutory protection to rivers as ecological entities. Thus, even the Environment Impact Assessment Notification has no regulation that covers the integrity of a river system other than regulations that oversee construction of buildings (in floodplains) or planning a hydropower or irrigation project on a river.

The high court likewise looks at river encroachments under Public Interest Litigation, and the National Green Tribunal under questions of larger environmental interest. Though I must admit, with the coming of the National Green Tribunal, there is a far more effective legal space available for safeguarding rivers. Both the Commonwealth Games village and the Metro depot came up before the formation of this tribunal.

While identifying the river zone (Zone O) as a planning zone in the city, the Delhi Development Authority’s Master Plan 2021 has not specifically provided any statutory protection to it. In any case the Master Plan with provision of making a change in the designated land use is often misused to regularise encroachments.

What is the stand of the National Green Tribunal on the Art of Living's World Culture Festival planned to be held at a venue spread over 1,000 acres in the Yamuna's floodplains next month? Will state apathy while giving illegal permissions for such events and constructions further the ‘art of killing’ the river?
The National Green Tribunal has issued notices to the respondents, which includes Delhi Development Authority, Delhi Government and the Art of Living Foundation. We await further actions in the matter.

Yes, indeed the art of killing the rivers is gaining newer ways.

This article was first published on Indian Water Portal.