The much talked about World Culture Festival of Art Of Living (AOL) came and went. But comments continue.
There were many allegations of environmental damage, permanent damage to the floodplains, wilful use of official machinery and clearance issues made against the event. The organisers have given appropriate answers. But how many of these saw the light of day is up for questioning.
Dumping of debris
About the accusations of levelling of land, dumping of garbage and construction debris. The site, when identified in December 2015, was already a massive dumping ground spread over 25 acres of land. On receiving permission from the DDA (letter dated 21 December 2015), the organisers cleared the debris. However, the clearing of debris was interestingly portrayed as AOL’s work of dumping.
As for firming up the land to bear the weight of scaffolding, the AOL did not have to do it. The DDA neglect in preventing garbage and construction debris dumping had already created a solid ground to withstand a temporary scaffolding structure. On levelling the land charges, the areas that were mildly levelled were done after obtaining permission from the environment ministry. A vast stretch of floodplains, used for farming, had been levelled by the farmers.
Removal of Vegetation
Trees were claimed to have been cut indiscriminately to make way for construction. Sure, vegetation was cut, basically weeds (prosopis juliflora) that reached up to a height of 10 to 14 feet. Four trees were pruned marginally and not a single tree was cut.
The organisers deny charges of blocking the Yamuna by dumping debris and polluting the river by releasing enzymes. In fact, 17 nalas empty into the Yamuna, contributing to the polluting of the river. As for the claim of debris in the river, it is best to ignore the truth that these already existed, having been dumped by local people. Just for the record, during the ‘Meri Dilli Meri Yamuna’ campaign held in 2010, more than 512 tons of garbage and toxic material had been cleared by AOL volunteers.
No concrete roads or solid parking areas were built. Only temporary pathways for people to reach the venues were created. The pathways became extremely slushy after the rains points to the fact that they were made of pure mud and zero presence of concrete.
The organisers were accused of flattening standing crops to make way for parking. Vinay Sukhija, coordinator of the farmlands had this to say. “Farmlands were indeed taken for parking but these lands were either vacant or ones that had already yielded the produce. No land under cultivation or under long term yield crops was taken. These lands were taken after the UP Irrigation department gave us legal permission to use the land.”
He further added, “Most of these lands were under illegal cultivation prompting UP Irrigation Department to periodically remove the illegal cultivation as the lands are to be vacant according to their records. We still offered compensation to the poor farmers, paying them a rent of Rs 20,000 for two weeks against their actual market rate of Rs 30,000 per year that they paid to their owners who had occupied the land illegally.”
Disposal of waste
Waste disposal certainly grabs headlines with catchy captions. A look at the facts should give the true picture. The programme venue, which was at a safe distance from the river, hosted 650 portable bio-toilets. The sewage was stored in suction tanks and disposed at designated locations of treatment plants as indicated by the Delhi Jal Board.
As for solid waste, about 1000 bins lined the location at various spots with volunteers in attendance. The solid waste was again disposed of in designated places. As of 19 March, 10 tonnes of wet waste had been collected and sent to the Okhla compost plan and 28 truckloads of dry waste collected and sent to recycling units.
Hydro-Geologist gives clean chit
If doubts still prevail about environmental damage, the independent expert opinion of Hydro-Geologist Dr Lingaraju should put concerns at rest.
On the environmental impact, Dr Lingaraju stated, “The Yamuna floodplain is vast, at more than 3,000 sq km area just in Delhi. The event occurred in a minuscule part of this floodplain, with no impact on the natural system of the region. Whatever activity happened during the festival was only for three evenings. Besides, no permanent or semi-permanent constructions were made. Whatever has been done will have no impact on the natural system like flow of water, recharging of ground water, and growth of natural vegetation cover.”
Just for the record, the festival hosted over 37,000 artistes, both national and international, with over 65 performances of dance and music reflecting classical and folk cultures from India, and different parts of the world. Besides the hundreds of dignitaries within the country and across the world, the festival also hosted close to 2,000 international inter-faith leaders, that included representatives of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism to the Vatican. In short, it was a confluence of cultures, races, religions, an affirmation of unity in diversity, the recognition and endorsement of a one-world family.
A point worth noting here is the extensive involvement of the AOL in river rejuvenation projects, having revived and restored 16 waterbodies in the country; 11 in Maharashtra, 3 in Karnataka, one each in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. This prompted the High Court of Karnataka in 2014 to direct the district administrations to replicate their project to rejuvenate waterbodies in the State. The recent Palar River in Tamil Nadu is a classic case where, along with the river rejuvenation, Narayana Vana, a herbal garden was created where 3000 tree saplings were planted in one month, with over 10,000 proposed to be added in the later months.
Art of Living Founder Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar had his final say on the Yamuna River when he turned to twitter on World Water Day to speak his mind. “I came to know there were 89 rivers in Tamil Nadu which now exist only in revenue records. Our team is searching for them”, he tweeted, adding in another tweet, pointedly, “We will very much love to work with the Centre and Delhi government to clean Yamuna.”
One thing is certainly clear. The World Culture Festival not only drew the attention of the world to unite cultures, it also brought undivided attention to the state of our rivers, and definitely the pathetic condition of the river Yamuna.
Written by Nandhini Sundar - a freelance journalist who was present during the event in her official capacity as a professional journalist.