India: Yamuna floodplain devastated by festival

Massive cultural festival has destroyed floodplains around Delhi, potentially threatening the future water supply of the capital city.

After protracted hearings, the India’s National Green Tribunal allowed a controversial world culture festival to go ahead this weekend with only a preliminary fine, despite the fact that organizers had violated environmental laws and damaged fragile floodplains on the banks of the Yamuna.

Spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation destroyed floodplains upstream of the capital city to build the world’s largest temporary stage. By compacting the sandy soil, they prevented water from percolating underground, threatening the future water supplies for Delhi.

The court’s expert committee will now assess the damage and decide the total amount of penalties with the next hearing due on April 4. Meanwhile, the festival organizers continue to claim they have done nothing wrong.

Juhi Chaudhary examines the evidence.

Fact 1: The Yamuna has been so polluted for decades that it is a dead river from the border of north Delhi and Haryana to its confluence with the Chambal river.

Fact 2: Except for a few days every good monsoon, the water carried by the Yamuna from the Himalayas does not flow beyond the north Delhi-Haryana border. Downstream till the Chambal, it is a stinking drain.

Fact 3: Like all rivers in South Asia, the Yamuna is braided—for most of the year, water flows in a few channels among extensive sandy floodplains. But these floodplains are essential to carry water during the monsoons, and to let any excess water percolate underground, which is why it is a very bad idea to hold these rivers within concrete embankments.

Fact 4: Billions have been spent in various efforts to clean the Yamuna, but the river keeps getting dirtier. Along the Delhi stretch alone, 14 large drains spew untreated sewage into the river. Nobody can satisfactorily explain why sewage treatment plants are lying defunct.

Fact 5: There have been encroachments on the Yamuna floodplain in Delhi—both benign and malignant. Seasonal vegetable farming is a benign encroachment. Constructing the Commonwealth Games Village, the Akshardham Temple and the Millennium Bus Depot have been malignant. Sand mining—within the law or despite it—is also a malignant encroachment.

Statement 1: The Art of Living (AOL) Foundation, led by spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, said its Global Culture Festival planned on the Yamuna floodplain would be benign, that its volunteers had already released enzymes to clean the water (though it would not give the chemical composition of the enzymes), that it would leave the floodplain cleaner than it was before.


Development 1: Festival organizers cleaned the floodplain just downstream of a stinking drain called the Barapullah Nullah. But in the process, they also removed the reeds and grasses that grew there and used to provide nesting sites for birds. They brought in earth movers to compact the sandy soil of the floodplain. Farmers who were growing vegetables on the floodplain were moved out and the soil compacted hard enough for heavy vehicles to drive on the riverbed.

Development 2: Two environmentalists who have been making largely-futile efforts for decades to clean the Yamuna went to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) with a plea to stop the festival on the ground that it would leave the floodplain worse than it was before. The tribunal appointed a committee of experts. They confirmed most of what the petitioners had said and suggested fining AOL Rs 100-120 crore (USD 14.9-17.9 million).

After protracted hearings, the NGT allowed the festival to go ahead, but imposed a Rs 5 crore (USD 745,303) “preliminary fine”. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar refused to pay it, saying he had done nothing wrong. AOL paid an “initial instalment” of Rs 25 lakh (USD 37,272) after the NGT said it was actually a fee to develop a biodiversity park at the spot.

Development 3: Engineers of the Indian Army were asked to build a temporary pontoon bridge over the Yamuna so that spectators could come from across the river—the first time in independent India that the army had been roped to help a private event.

Development 4: Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the festival on March 11. There was wonderful dance and music for three evenings by over 36,000 artistes from across the world, performing on a seven-acre stage. (It may make it to Guinness book). Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal—otherwise a bitter political opponent of Modi—attended the valedictory session on March 13 and requested Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to help clean the Yamuna.

Reality check 1: It rained shortly before the festival was scheduled to begin. Most of the rainwater did not seep down through the compacted soil. The entire 2,000-acre venue turned into extremely slippery muck. Spectators—most were on foot—kept slipping. Several cars and buses got stuck in the muck and needed many a push.

The rain was unexpected. The stage and the seating area were all open-air. People tried to cover themselves with chairs, boards, tarpaulin, plastic sheets, whatever they could lay their hands on, especially during the short period when the rain turned to hail.

Manoj Misra of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan (Long Live Yamuna Campaign)—one of the environmentalists who had petitioned the NGT—, “I had written in my letter to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in January that Delhi is highly vulnerable to sand storms, mango showers and rain in the month of March so they were aware of the high possibility of such weather.”

Due to rain, many lights did not work, making it more difficult to cross the muck in the night. Not one of the 27 TV screens installed on the spot worked, so the spectators did not really see any cultural event except as specks.

The organizers had told the NGT they were installing 650 portable bio toilets to ensure that there would be no sewage flowing into the Yamuna. Once past the gates, it was difficult to find any of these toilets. Asked where they were, a policewoman advised this reporter, “Better to hold on than to use them. They are so filthy and smelly that you will catch an infection.” The policewoman had already been on duty for 12 hours.

Perhaps the rain kept many people away. One policeman at the spot estimated the crowd at less than 40,000. There were lots of empty chairs.

Still, traffic authorities blocked off many arterial roads. The resultant snarls left some commuters stranded almost till midnight.

Reality check 2: On the second day, arrangements were better but the crowd thinner. Environmentalists made a fresh charge, alleging that festival organizers had dumped dry sand over the pools of water in an effort to soak it up. This goes against a January 13, 2015 order of the NGT. The order reads, “There shall be complete prohibition on dumping of any material in and around river Yamuna.” 

Statement 2: The festival came to a close with renewed promises by the organisers that the area would be left cleaner than it used to be before all this started, and that AOL would work to develop a biodiversity park at the spot. AOL spokespersons mentioned 16 rivers around the country which their volunteers had rejuvenated.

Statement 3: “This is clearly vote bank politics that’s going on,” said Misra. “This is a blatant violation, a brazen challenge to the judiciary. What’s worrying is that this is not even being done by a greedy corporate but by an organisation that propagates non-violence and peace. The message that has come out of this is that it is OK to flout the law because you have the power.”

Reality check 3: The morning after brought more passing showers that pushed hundreds of plastic wrappers into the turbid Yamuna before the volunteers had a chance to clean up. Dismantling the stage was a slow affair because many of the trucks that had to take the struts away got stuck in the muck once again. The organizers said they would work round the clock to finish the clean-up.

But none of this will address the biggest damage—the reduced ability of the floodplain to let water percolate underground, while filtering out at least some of the pollutants. Some hydrologists suggest the organizers should plough up the soil to restore its sandy nature. However, there is no guarantee of success.

Development 5: The NGT’s expert committee will now assess the damage and within a month submit a report on the restoration plan, as well as the total amount that AOL needs to pay as compensation. The next hearing is on April 4.

Reality check 4: Delhi is a highly water-stressed city and large parts of south Delhi—just downstream of where the festival was held—is dependent on groundwater. Any reduction in the ability of the floodplain to let water percolate underground can have serious consequences.

There is some talk of compensating the farmers who lost their standing crops. Nobody is talking about the birds that lost their nests.

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