They said it loud and clear: The Art of Living’s World Cultural Festival, held in March 2016, caused extensive damage to the Yamuna floodplains. It will take a decade and Rs 42 crores to set it right. This pronunciation from an expert committee appointed by the National Green Tribunal has infuriated the spiritual leader Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation, which has claimed that this is a conspiracy against its good name.

A bit of history, first, as a reminder. The expert committee was set up as part of litigation against the festival, which was held on the banks of the Yamuna in Delhi. At that point, the foundation denied doing any harm to the river. As proof, it pointed out that buffaloes came back to drink the waters. Over the months, the foundation released the information that an expert from the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute did not believe they had caused damage. Later, the foundation asked for NEERI to be on the expert committee. The individual who had inspected the site and declared that no harm had been done became the head of NEERI. The committee was expanded.

After this, the foundation didn’t raise any objections about the committee, or its composition. It was only after the adverse report that the foundation cried foul.

Given the history of the World Cultural Festival, I’m not entirely surprised at the extent of the foundation’s sense of entitlement. Yes, it is headed by a well-recognised teacher. It has follows in several countries. In India, it is plugged into political and other wealthy, powerful circuits. Even the Delhi Water Minister, Kapil Misra, poured scorn on the expert committee report and suggested that the festival ought to be held again at the same site. He asked whether there had been thousands of birds there before the fest. (The answer is yes. In fact, on March 5 this year, the Okhla Bird Sanctuary next door reported 95 species on a given day, which is almost a third of Delhi’s total.) Despite all this power-batting, the foundation is not exempt from the law. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have realised this.

Rivers as human

Only recently, the courts gave the Yamuna the status of a person, with the chief secretary as its guardian/parent. In effect, it is a real person with real rights. Think of it this way. Someone who has been brutally assaulted is taken by the police to the hospital for a medical examination. The doctors concur on the terrible assault and list the injuries. Will the doctors be called conspirators, bent on defaming the perpetrators? Will the victim have to keep bleeding to get justice or should they be given medical attention so they can recoup and recover their health?

What does the Art of Living Foundation’s big sulk tell us about the challenge of protecting the commons?

First and foremost, it reminds every one about the power of regular folks. Not just power, but the absolute need for regular folks to fight loudly for the commons. Although the President of India accepted but then changed his mind about attending the event, almost every other powerful political representative was present, despite public outrage. We cannot expect our opinions to be represented and acknowledged all the time.

Second, it underscores what the role and power of a minister is. Kapil Misra, with over a decade worth of activism before he entered politics, has clearly mixed up his personal views and his role as the chief protector of Delhi’s water and rivers. His personal view cannot be the basis of policy for the entire city. Power cannot become a substitute for the science offered by an expert committee. Activism can be one antidote to this.

Third, the need for understanding and appreciating science in all its complexities became clear during this fiasco. Kapil Misra is a moot case in point. By disguising bias and rhetoric as common-sense science, he tried to dumb down the debate. But because the dumbed-down questions came from him, they also carried authority. In a society that is able to ask for the science and make sense of it, it will be hard to get away with such populist remarks.

Long-term damage

Finally, the damage is done. We will all be a decade older by the time the areas is restored. We cannot let this happen again. Delhi and other cities should learn from this and protect urban rivers uncompromisingly. Of course, we have to stop letting sewage and effluents flow in. But we also have to know that the rivers we have are not mere water, but the lands around them. They are eco-systems. Plans for their protection have to be made, along with citizens. They have to be treated as non-violate, as indeed, Delhi’s Master Plan had designated the river bed. These plans must be sacred.

In this year of terrible drought, our rivers are our lifelines. The task of protecting them has fallen upon all of us. Kapil Misra’s disrespect to the National Green Tribunal-appointed committee and Art of Living Foundation’s contempt is easily replicable in river after river, city after city. It will kill us all. We have to fight back, because we are the only soldiers we have.

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