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.