Over weeks, under the unseeing gaze of the Union government, a mega festival venue came up on the Yamuna floodplains in the national capital. An army unit built temporary bridges while bulldozers rolled over the cabbage and cauliflower crop. Billboards listed different government agencies among the sponsors of the event. As the Art of Living (AOL) Foundation’s World Culture Festival gets underway amid controversy, the spotlight will be on the regulatory system, which has been shown up to be lax and compromised.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) order on a plea seeking a ban on the three-day festival makes for disturbing reading. Two days ahead of the festival, which the organisers claim will attract 35 lakh visitors, it was revealed that the venue did not have fire safety and security clearances. The quality of construction, especially the stage, was suspect. No traffic plan was in place to manage the crowd expected on the roads connecting Delhi to trans-Yamuna colonies and Noida. The Delhi Development Authority, the Central agency that gave clearance for the festival in June last, pleaded ignorance about the scale of the event and its impact on the fragile Yamuna ecosystem. The Delhi Pollution Control Committee was clueless about the construction debris and waste likely to be left behind by the congregation. The ministry of water resources, mandated to protect the Yamuna, was not in the picture while the ministry of environment and forests told the tribunal that the event, which the Delhi High Court described as an ecological disaster, did not require environmental clearances. The NGT rightly indicted all the agencies and the AOL, but permitted the event subsequent to the organisers paying an initial fine of Rs 5 crore and developing a biodiversity park later at the venue. The NGT order displays flawed reasoning: It could not call off the event, it said, “For the reason of delay and laches on the part of the applicant in approaching the Tribunal and for the reason of fait accompli capable of restoration and restitution”. Fait accompli is a tenuous legal argument even if it has been invoked in the past to secure clearance for projects entangled in a policy mess. In the end, the show will go on, despite the fact that no one, barring the AOL, disputes the claim that it could damage the Yamuna’s floodplains, and serious questions regarding public security and fire safety remain.
It has been the Yamuna’s misfortune that its course runs through Delhi. Though it is the primary source of drinking water, the city has seldom cared for the river’s life. Administrators eye the river’s floodplains as to-be-exploited real estate. If untreated sewage from the city killed the river, mega constructions like the Akshardham temple complex and the Commonwealth Games Village have irrevocably tampered with its course and aquifers. The NGT had an opportunity to redeem this story. It failed to do so.