Hardlook: A look at troubled waters of Yamuna floodplains one year after World Culture Festival

An expert panel set up by the green tribunal has said it would take 10 years and Rs 42 crore to revive the Yamuna floodplains, after the damage caused by the World Culture Festival.

Written by Sowmiya Ashok | New Delhi | Updated: May 1, 2017 4:33 am
Weeks before the festival, farmers who cultivate vegetables on the floodplains were asked to leave.  Oinam Anand

It was a mela Parvati never saw. The curtains had come up wherever she looked, even around the strip of land where her cows usually graze. “Bandhook leke seedhe khade hue the,” she said about men in uniform clutching guns, who would not let anyone through without a pass. She did see performers in bright costumes walk past her thatched hut, who had deboarded mini-buses coming in from the DND Expressway. Weeks before March 11, 12 and 13 last year, small farmers such as Parvati who cultivate vegetables on the floodplains on the west bank of the Yamuna — without permission — were asked to pack up and leave.

JCB machines uprooted tori, mooli, karela, palak, sitaphal and an assortment of edibles, while 50-tonne road rollers flattened, levelled and compacted the ground. Kaltu Ram, sitting outside his bamboo hut, said farmers in the area lost over Rs 4 lakh as a result. “They even destroyed the temple I had built for Vaishno Devi under that peepul tree. Since Babaji came, everything around here has changed…,” he said.

The “change” began with the 35th anniversary of the Bengaluru-based The Art of Living (AoL) Foundation, which chose the fragile Yamuna floodplains to celebrate “cultural diversity and global unity” through “cultural performances and messages of inspiration” at an event called the World Culture Festival.

The decision to choose the site as the venue was “specifically” to bring “awareness” about the river, argued AoL. But since then, the past year has seen a tussle over definitions: for some who moved court against the AoL foundation, the floodplains don’t constitute land but an extension of water. For the government, AoL and the farmers, it is solid land. And then there are those who question AoL’s very definition of river rejuvenation.

And in the midst of all this, the river continues to flow towards its seemingly inevitable end.

‘Festival was to raise awareness’
According to the festival’s website, 3.75 million people and over 36,000 artists from 155 countries visited the venue. “This was specifically to bring awareness about the river. We thought an international gathering will give more impetus to clean the river,” AoL spokesperson Jaideep Nath said.

Environmentalists said the floodplains are crucial to groundwater recharge, which meet 30 per cent of the city’s water requirements, and should under no circumstance be used for any other purpose. “It is the biggest area that recharges our groundwater, a welcome green space that moderates the city’s temperatures, and our biggest ally in climate change adaptation,” environmentalist Manoj Misra, from Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, said.

But AoL questioned the very notion of the fragility of the floodplains. “The land there was already being cultivated and roads existed before we got there. In fact, we did not do compaction,” Nath said.

However, Noida environmentalist Anand Arya said it is a simple test to check if the ground has been compacted: “If you can drive anything other than a 4×4 SUV in the area, the damage is visible even by you.”

The foundation, however, maintained that the “floating stage” that spanned seven-acres — the size of six football fields — barely scratched the surface. Describing the stage, another AoL spokesperson said, “It’s the same principle as sadhus sitting on nails. The whole stage was constructed on countless small bamboo sticks; none of these dug into the ground.”

Over the last year, whether or not Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s AoL destroyed the Yamuna floodplains has been the point of contention in the country’s apex green court — the National Green Tribunal.

No, then yes
In January 2015, a year before work at the site began, the NGT passed an order to implement the ‘Maily Se Nirmal Yamuna Revitalisation Project, 2017’ — a roadmap to restore the floodplains, address the question of flow into the river, and take action to eliminate pollution.

That winter, Misra and his colleagues heard about the festival from local farmers and the festival’s website.

In his letter to then Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung, Misra said: “The Yamuna river floodplains are currently under an NGT-mandated restoration plan. There is a legal injunction on any new construction there.”

Isn’t the festival then a direct violation of the NGT’s previous order, he wanted to know. Misra offered examples of alternative sites where the festival could be held — like north Delhi’s Nirankari Sammelan grounds or any of the idle sports stadiums.

He wrote next to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar on January 22, 2016: “Surely, 35 lakh footfall trampling its bed is only going to add to (the river’s) woes.”

Meanwhile, the AoL went to the Centre’s Delhi Development Authority (DDA) — the custodians of the floodplains — for permission to hold the festival. “They were denied permission on grounds that the area lies within the flood lines of 25 acres,” claimed Arya.

DDA eventually granted 24.46 hectares. “Did the area of activity suddenly move out of the flood line?” he said, adding that the DDA also did not specify which exact area they meant or a time limit for which permission was granted.

In all, the festival was stretched over 180 hectares, according to the expert panel later constituted by the NGT to assess the quantum of damage and the amount of restoration needed to revive the site. By the end of February 2016, in response to a petition filed by Misra, the NGT expressed helplessness in banning the event, citing “fait accompli”.

However, it levied an interim environmental compensation of Rs 5 crore on AoL.

AoL’s stand
The expert panel constituted months later found that the festival had “completely destroyed” the riverbed and pegged the cost of restoration at over Rs 42 crore. It would now take 10 years to rehabilitate the floodplains, it said.

The work that had been achieved in the brief period after the NGT’s 2015 order came into effect had been undone by the festivities, attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Water Minister Uma Bharti.

“It has been estimated that approximately 120 hectares of floodplains west (right bank) and about 50 hectares floodplains of the eastern side (left bank) of the river have been adversely impacted ecologically,” the report said.

The committee, headed by Shashi Shekhar, Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, recommended that major restoration work be carried out to compensate for the damage.

The report left no doubt about the scale of AoL’s activities — ranging from compacting the ground to filling water bodies. Eventually, these resulted in a “change in topography and habitat diversity, loss of water bodies and wetlands, loss of floodplain vegetation and biodiversity”, it said.

This didn’t go down well with AoL, which termed the report “completely flawed, unscientific and biased”. It told The Indian Express that “while they have full faith in the tribunal, they have no faith in the so-called expert committee”.

Last week, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar clarified on Facebook that AoL had obtained all necessary permission, including from the NGT, and maintained that the festival should not have been given the go-ahead if the river was so fragile and pure. “If, at all, any fine has to be levied, it should be levied on the Centre and state governments and the NGT itself, for giving permission,” he wrote.

But Arya, the petitioner in the case, used Google Earth to zoom in on the floodplains after the monsoons and found that water was stagnating. “There is only one conclusion here — the area has been compacted to the point that no water is percolating through,” he said.

AoL’s spokespersons also maintained that they followed “scientific” rejuvenation methods such as planting trees and recharge of groundwater using low cost gabion structures across the country.

In Shankar’s own words, “The whole idea was to bring awareness to save the river. AoL, which has rejuvenated 27 rivers, planted 71 million trees, revived several ponds, is being projected as destroying a dead river. What a joke.”

Experts in Maharashtra — where 22 of the 27 rivers are — don’t seem to be in on the joke. Parineeta Dandekar from the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, said many “rejuvenation projects by AoL involve deepening and widening of streams”. This definition of rejuvenation of rivers is innately flawed, she argued.

“In the Bombay HC, there is a case on deepening of rivers, which doesn’t always help. It’s not restoration when done without expert management, and it is more damaging,” she said.

Misra, meanwhile, filed a contempt plea against Sri Sri Ravi Shankar for his comments against the NGT. The matter will come up for hearing again on May 9, along with the main case where the green body will determine the proportion of funds to be paid by AoL, and decide if the DDA will also have to shoulder the burden. DDA did not comment on the case as it was sub-judice.

What next?
Back in Delhi, on Friday last week, Misra stood in front of a group of students at TERI University in Vasant Kunj and spoke about ‘Delhi and its lifeline river’. “It’s difficult to explain why I love the Yamuna so much, it’s a hard question to answer… It just happened to us,” he told The Indian Express later.

But before the students, he cited Article 51 A (g) of the Constitution — “To protect and improve the natural environment, including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife, and to have compassion for living creatures” — as a reason for him and his colleagues to start an NGO dedicated to the Yamuna.

Pointing to a picture of a blocked artery on the screen, Misra — who has been fighting on behalf of the Yamuna for a decade — said, “This is what happens to a city when we invade the floodplains. When we allow our arteries to be invaded, we suffer heart failure. Same thing happens to cities. It has happened to Chennai, to Srinagar and it can happen to Delhi if we don’t stop what we are doing.”

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