Living fest over dying Yamuna

Floodplains are already fighting a losing battle in India. Flood devastations in Chennai have not taught us any lesson and the wrong precedence the NGT has started with this order will never let us learn any.

Yamuna-RiverGangescha, Yamuneschaiba, Godavari Saraswati Narmade Sindhu Kaveri Jaloshmin Sannidhe Bhaba…

Kurukhetra Gaya Ganga prabhasa puskaranicha yetani punyatirthani snana sankalpa kaale bhabantu iha…

Vedic shlokas such as the above say that Indians have been traditionally invoking seven holy rivers – Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri – while taking a bath. To be more specific, they invoke the purity of these rivers.

So, even if I am taking a dip in far off Mahanadi in the eastern state of Odisha, I am swearing by the purity of Ganga, Yamuna or the other five rivers.

Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to take a dip in the Yamuna these days, let alone swearing by its purity. That’s especially in the Delhi stretch of 22 kilometers, from Wazirabad Barrage to Okhla Barrage.

Twenty-two drains, carrying waste water including sewage, fall into the river in this stretch. In Delhi, Yamuna has been reduced to a drain.

When spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living (AOL) Foundation decided to hold the world’s largest cultural and spiritual fest, ‘World Culture Festival’, at such a polluted stretch of Yamuna, one expected that attention of culture loving persons from across the globe will be drawn to the plight of the Yamuna.

That would not only have showcased Indian cultures (invariably ingrained with respect for holy rivers) but also promoted values of plurality by bringing in people from 155 countries.

But the organizers of the fest, scheduled for March 11-13, kept saying that the venue is at a safe distance from the river bed, perhaps meaning, no participant – from among the three and half millions expected – will have to bear the stink of the heavily polluted river.

What they don’t want to admit that the area where the fest is being organized belongs to Yamuna’s fragile floodplains.

A river is not just a flow of water

This is perhaps because the ‘environmental concerns’, towards which Sri Sri Ravi Shankar as well as his spokespersons claim to be working since long, do not recognize the importance of floodplains as an integrated component of river systems.

For laymen, a river is just visible in the flow of water, and environment means trees. In reality, river systems are much more than that.

Floodplains provide the necessary cushion for the river’s high peak discharges during flood times and host and keep alive a very vital ecosystem for the river.

Yamuna may be highly polluted, but the low lying and other floodplains are essential spaces for the biodiversity – including grass, bushes, birds, trees and other such vitalities.

The activists, who filed a petition before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) against AOL’s cultural fest, argued exactly this and pleaded the tribunal to stop the damage by cancelling permission for the event.

The NGT took up the case and engaged a four-member expert committee that confirmed that huge damage had already been done by the ongoing constructions.

The committee pointed out that the Yamuna floodplains had already suffered “extensive and severe damage” by the preparatory construction activities and recommended that the AOL should pay Rs.100-120 crore towards restoration of the same.

The expert committee found that the floodplain between the river and a nearby flyover has been levelled flat for providing VIP access to the stage and small water bodies that existed earlier have been filled up. All the natural vegetation has been removed and the site has been compacted, it added.

“Natural vegetation consisting of reeds and trees has been completely removed, and the large number of birds and other natural life that was supported by the floodplain has vanished,” said the report.

NGT also observed that not only the AOL but almost all government agencies responsible for maintaining the environment have violated laws to permit Sri Sri’s mega event.

However, despite clear violation of NGT’s own ruling of January 2015, which has barred all activities in Yamuna floodplains, the tribunal could not stop the event.

Loss for Yamuna, loss for river system

On March 9, it allowed the fest albeit with some riders and provided AOL paid a fine of Rs.5 crore in advance. AOL saved its face as the tribunal considered the fact that the preparations for the fest were at a very advanced stage and pointed out that the case against it was filed too late by the activists.

This is an interim order only. Hopefully the final order will charge a penalty of Rs.120 crore rupees to the AOL.
Sri Sri and AOL win (I do not know if the spiritual master wins morally or spiritually). But Yamuna loses. Ignorance about river system wins, ecosystems lose.

Floodplains are already fighting a losing battle in India. Flood devastations in Chennai have not taught us any lesson and the wrong precedence the NGT has started with this order will never let us learn any.

I only wish the spiritual gurus, who claim to be doing a lot to conserve and rejuvenate our rivers, understood the river systems in their spiritual, socio-cultural and ecological totality. Spirituality and river systems cannot go separate ways.

(Ranjan Panda is an Indian environmentalist, water and climate change expert)

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