March 26, 2016

World Culture Fiasco

I've written an objective piece on the same topic titled The Yamuna, a song, and a dance for India Water Portal. Be warned: The post below is more of a rant but with research, and I thoroughly enjoyed writing it. :) 

So take your pick on which one you read, but I urge you to read at least one of them. The situation revolving around the Yamuna and many other wetlands/floodplains in India is dire. It needs understanding before action. 

Maybe it should've been called World Culture Fiasco. That name somehow seems more apt given the way events have unfolded since news of the Art of Living Foundation's (AOL) mega event broke in December thanks to Manoj Misra, an environmental activist and convenor of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan.

Enough has been written and shown about how the Foundation went about getting permissions, flouting guidelines and abusing their political (and spiritual) clout in order to make the event happen despite the National Green Tribunal fining it Rs. 5 crore—a sum that was supposed to be paid up before March 11, the first day of the event, but which is still pending.

I have to confess that my interest in the event came about only a few days after the event ended. An old friend was part of a German contingent at the World Culture Festival (WCF) and posted pictures on Facebook. She had praised most things about it including how well it was organised and how fantastic the arrangements were—contrary to what a participant from India had stated. True, it's one person's opinion. Call me cynical, but I'm fairly certain that this one wasn't the exception. But I digress.

“What are your thoughts on the environmental damage this has caused”, I asked and was met with a reply that was astounding in its simplicity. “Actually, it hasn't caused any damage as yet. People are speculating that the changes to the floodplains 'will' cause a problem in future. As a person who has witnessed the event in person rather than read it in the media, I believe the banks of the Yamuna will be left cleaner than found. The event has already drawn attention to how dirty the river was. Hopefully the cleaning will start soon.”

We traded a few comments back and forth on what construction on any floodplain could do, the resulting damage similar to what happened in Chennai last December (since we were both from Chennai, I felt compelled to put it in perspective), biodiversity and ecology of the region and so on. After a few exchanges, it became evident to me that these weren't issues that an average citizen—much less AOL followers—would be interested in engaging on. The constant refrain was that the AOL was an eco-friendly organisation with environmental consciousness built into everything it did, and that it wouldn't do anything to harm a river.

In fact, cleaning the river was a big part of the exchange we had—since 2010, AOL volunteers have cleaned the Yamuna itself with Sri Sri asserting that “we will turn it into a beautiful biodiversity park once we are finished with it.” I am not a water sector expert but one only has to read up recent news—and not even research papers or anything technical—to understand why cleaning is not the point of contention here. It is the extent of the damage to the floodplain, something which can't be estimated overnight because it is different from counting the kilos of trash removed from the river.

Newsflash! Remember the Chennai floods? Yes, those buildings on the marshlands in Chennai were permanent structures while the WCF-related structures were temporary, but a fair bit of tampering has been done on the ground to aid their construction. Now, a week after the event, volunteers are cleaning up, and that's supposed to assuage everyone's concern!

Maybe AOL followers—even those from around the world—feel unfairly criticised because it isn't uncommon in India to flout the law, get away with it, and repeat. This event being allowed is as much the fault of the various government authorities in Delhi as it is of the National Green Tribunal. The DDA granted permission as late as November 2015 because the Foundation had said that it would be difficult to cancel as too much had been planned already.

“Explaining why permission was granted for the festival, the official said, “In the past, DDA might not have given permission for events on the river bank but an exception was made in this case as it is an event for cultural emancipation and involves yoga and music. This event is spiritual in nature and permissions for such events are usually granted.” If that's not a poor precedent to set, the NGT judgement went ahead and did just that by saying that money can buy one anything including a 'get out of jail card for free' (or 5 crores in this case) when found guilty.

So yeah, there are a lot of people to blame but my biggest peeve with those supporting this event so staunchly is their blind belief in whatever the Foundation states as being done to 'save' the Yamuna. That, and statements that the Yamuna will finally get the attention it deserves so that it can be cleaned and restored to its original state. Environmentalists, activists, those whose lives depend on the river, and many more have been working tirelessly on this issue for years to no avail. The arrogance of the Foundation to think that a cultural event showing off its clout in all spheres will make the difference is staggering.

But who knows. Just like the wondrous rainbow that appeared on the first day of the event due to an act of God (and not due to the meteorological phenomenon that even first graders understand), maybe some intervention—divine or political—might actually make the Yamuna pristine once again, if only to save face.  

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