Yamuna’s floodplain: What it is, how building on it can be harmful

Art of Living can hold its mega festival on the Yamuna’s floodplains, but must take steps to restore the area to its original state afterward. What kind of damage is the event likely to cause, and what will restoration take?

Written by Amitabh Sinha | Published: March 10, 2016 12:19:31 am
New Delhi:  Workers prepare stage for the three-day World Peace Festival organised by spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in New Delhi on Tuesday.  PTI Photo by Kamal Kishore (PTI3_8_2016_000256A) Workers prepare stage for the three-day World Peace Festival organised by spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in New Delhi on Tuesday. (Source: PTI)

On Wednesday, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) permitted Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation to organise its World Culture Festival on the floodplains of the Yamuna after imposing a fine of Rs 5 crore on the organisation, and asking it to undertake remedial action to restore the area to its original state at the end of the three-day event beginning tomorrow. The event has come under sharp criticism from environmental activists and NGOs because of the damage it is likely to cause to the Yamuna’s floodplains.

First, what is a floodplain?

Floodplain is the area adjacent to a river that is not always under water, but is prone to flooding. It is an extension of the riverbed. In the case of the Yamuna in Delhi, the area that is likely to get submerged at least once in a 25-year period has been classified as its floodplain. The floodplains are not separate from the river. They are an integral part of any river-system, and are an ecologically sensitive area.

So, what’s happening on these floodplains for this event?

The event has been billed as the “biggest ever festival of music and dance”. The Art of Living is claiming that 3.5 million people will attend. A huge 7-acre stage (about 1,200 feet long, 200 feet wide, and 40 feet high), apparently the world’s largest ever, is being erected. Several tents have been put up, pontoon bridges are being built, dirt tracks are being laid, and heavy equipment have been deployed. Vegetation has been cut to make way for the temporary constructions. The entire area has been flattened.

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What is the likely impact on the environment?

Environmentalists say such an event can cause permanent and irreparable damage to the river ecosystem in the affected area. One of the important functions of the floodplains is groundwater recharge. In the process of flattening, the surface has been hardened, and that severely impacts its groundwater recharge capability. The work at the site has also changed the natural gradient of the floodplain, which can diminish its flood-carrying capacity. Small water bodies and wetlands have been filled up.

The extent of the likely damage is yet to be assessed. A committee appointed by the NGT did make a site visit, and recorded its observations in a report to the court. But it was based on just a three-hour inspection, and not a proper scientific assessment.

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But what did the committee say?

In his observations, Prof A K Gossain of the Department of Civil Engineering, IIT Delhi, one of the members of the committee, said that the site had been “cleared of all natural vegetation”, “raised with the help of JCBs” and “huge amount of debris and construction waste” had been dumped into the main channel of the Yamuna. He said the activity could in no way be described as “benign”, and would have a “permanent footprint on the floodplain”.

It recommended that the organisers restrict the area of their operation to the bare minimum, and pay for the entire cost of the restoration. It said that a strong message should be sent to the DDA so that such violations are not repeated, and a restoration plan is prepared and its implementation monitored strictly.

Can the area be restored to its original condition?

Technically, yes. The clearing of debris can be done comparatively easily. Some other works can take several years. However, the problem in this case is that the authorities don’t even know what the original condition was. No study or assessment was done before the Art of Living Foundation was allowed to make changes to the floodplain for the event. In the absence of a baseline scenario, there is no way to assess whether the original condition has been restored.

Depending on what the impacts are, the monetary costs of restoration can be very high. The NGT-appointed committee had estimated that between Rs 100 and Rs 120 crore might be required for the restoration. It had recommended that the organisers be asked to deposit this amount in a separate account ahead of the event.

But the Akshardham temple and Commonwealth Games Village too stand on the Yamuna floodplains. Have they not caused damage?

There was a similar uproar then. On both occasions, activists and citizens petitioned the courts, and the matter reached the Supreme Court. On both occasions, the apex court finally cleared the construction. In the CWG Village case, the court ruled that the site did not constitute the floodplains of the river.

In scale and size, these two are several times bigger than the Art of Living Foundation’s event. Activists and experts say the two gigantic, permanent structures have caused irreparable and irreversible damage to the river. But again, no scientific assessment has ever been made of the precise impact.

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