As farmers and activists rue the devastation of the floodplains, spiritual head confident that NGT judgment will be in their favour
After stirring up a storm for planning to host the 35th anniversary of the Art of Living (AOL) foundation on the banks of Yamuna, Sri Sri Ravishankar clarified his stand in an interview to NDTV. The leader said that this act will infact restore Yamuna, and not destroy it. He said that the foundation has removed the debris lying at the site, which will help the river. He also added that they are planning to use enzymes to clean the river.
“We should be rewarded for hosting the event on the banks of Yamuna,” he told NDTV.
When asked about the farmers’ complains, Ravishankar told NDTV that the farmers were exaggerating and the AOL foundation will make Yamuna a better place when they leave.
The national green tribunal (NGT) will deliver its final judgment on March 7. But the confident Ravishankar told NDTV that they have followed all rules and the judgment will be in AOL’s favour.
A quick recap
The AOL foundation is organising the World Culture festival to “celebrate the diversity in cultures from across the world while simultaneously highlighting our unity as a human family”. However, the noble intent of this event was overshadowed by the controversial venue it chose -- banks of Yamuna. The event is slated for March 11-13.
The Delhi development authority (DDA) had granted permission to the foundation to hold the festival on Yamuna with some riders to safeguard the river ecology, which activists allege have been violated to the core.
The permission was granted by DDA on December 15 last year and construction activity started soon after. Shortly before giving permission to AOL, DDA had announced that it had freed 106 acre of land in the flood zone from encroachment. The encroachers were members of Delhi peasants’ cooperative multipurpose society, who were leased lands in these floodplains which according to DDA had expired.
Master Baljeet Singh, general secretary, Delhi peasants’ cooperative multipurpose society, has been residing on the bank of Yamuna since his birth. He owns almost 40 bigha land on the floodplains which according to him had been leased to the society since 1949 and renewed every three years till 1966. He insists that the farmers are willing to buy the land from the DDA but “DDA wants to sell it elsewhere”.
Startled by the construction activity for the festival, the farmers alerted some activists. “We did not know DDA gave permission as it [the permission] was not in the public domain,” says Manoj Mishra, convenor, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan. He then wrote to a host of organisations including AOL. No response came from any of the government bodies. “We went to the national green tribunal after exhausting all executive avenues,” Mishra says.
Acting upon Mishra’s allegations, the NGT appointed a four member expert committee comprising Shashi Shekhar, secretary water resources ministry, CR Babu of union environment ministry, AK Gosain, professor IIT-Delhi and Professor Brij Gopal from Jaipur to probe the matter. The committee found that about 60 hectare of land between the river and the DND expressway was levelled, small water bodies filled up and natural vegetation was destroyed. Based on their findings, they recommended a fine of Rs 120 crore on AOL.
It is also being alleged that the Indian army and PWD Delhi helped in construction of pontoon bridges and pathways at the site.
In January 2015, the tribunal in a landmark judgment issued directions for the restoration of the Yamuna under the ‘Maili se Nirmal Yamuna’ project, slated to be completed by March 2017. Mishra who had filed the petition leading to the judgment says that positive changes had started showing. “For the first time in decades, the flow has doubled and the river is perennial till Panipat. Delhi Jal Board (DJB) and DDA have fallen in line and actions were being taken to abide by the order,” he adds.
However, the AOL’s event reversed this trend. “The entire floodplain is now devastated. It will take decades to restore it,” he rues. He says that if NGT does not send a strong message and lets DDA go scot free no agency will respect the judgment. Activists largely feel that the event could have been postponed and shifted to a safer venue.
But Mishra sees a nefarious design here. “I see it as an attempt at land grabbing,” he says. Mishra points out that the millennium bus depot which too has been built over the Yamuna floodplains before the 2010 commonwealth games was supposed to be a temporary structure. Yet six years later, it still stands.
About 3.5 million people are expected to attend the festival, which is supported by the ministry of culture and the Delhi government. Kapil Mishra, minister of culture, Delhi, has even endorsed the event.