Note: This article has been republished from Down To Earth.
The event, being hosted by the Art of Living Foundation led by spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravishankar, for the organisation’s 35th anniversary is expected to attract up to 3.5 million visitors. There is just one problem though: the venue.
The mega event is to be held on a vast swathe of over 405 hectares of the Yamuna floodplains with one of the main attractions being the world’s largest stage spanning about 2.83 hectares. Incidentally, Sri Sri has gone on record several times purporting the sanctity of rivers and the urgent need to preserve them. Over the past couple of weeks, the guru, representatives of the organisation and volunteers have aggressively defended the move to host the spectacle on the banks of the Yamuna. According to the organisation, holding the spiritual confluence on the banks would actually contribute to the cleaning up of the area. But heavy construction activity taken up to set up the venue is not only potentially irreversibly harmful for the ecologically sensitive tract of land flanked by the Delhi-Noida Link toll bridge on one side and the Yamuna on the other, but also in direct violation of the National Green Tribunal (NGT)’s orders regarding the revitalisation and conservation of the Yamuna. The NGT in January 2015 had ordered suspension of all construction activity on the plain and criminalised any such activity henceforth.
The issue has divided civil society on whether the event would have a gross negative impact on the river. While the organisers of the event have been permitted by the Delhi Development Authority (which has permanent presence on the committee formed by the NGT to probe the conditions of the Yamuna and the steps required for conservation prior to its order), environmentalists are fearful of the lasting impact of conducting such a large-scale event on the fragile plains in contradiction to the orders of the green tribunal. Although supporters of the foundation claim that clearing of debris and enzyme treatment of the adjacent stretch of the Yamuna would go a long way in realising the hope of a rejuvenated Yamuna, the committee set up the NGT to evaluate the activity on the site of the event had a different opinion. Here are the ways in which hosting such a huge event could harm the tract of land already devastated by unlawful and unregulated construction and polluting industries:
1. There has been large-scale compaction of the tract of land between the DND flyover and the river with the entire area of the floodplain having been levelled. According to the NGT-constituted committee report, water bodies that dotted this stretch have been filled up and compacted which could disturb the natural drainage network of the region.
2. There has been an indiscriminate destruction of the natural ecosystem that existed on the floodplains over about 60 hectares on the western side of the river. The committee report notes that this stretch of the floodplain “has been completely destroyed; the natural vegetation consisting of reeds, and trees have been completely removed and the large number of birds and other natural life that was supported by the floodplain has vanished due to this destruction.”
3. The topography of the floodplains have been changed in accordance with the needs for the festival. Stretches of land have been levelled while several have been raised using JCBs which completely disregards the flood control function that floodplains serve. This, along with the removal of shrubs and natural vegetation, could have a significant impact on the capacity of the floodplains to mitigate future floods in the capital unless rectified.
4. Parking sites, as well as access roads and ramps for thousands of expected vehicles are being constructed on either side of the river with heavy construction equipment and materials that pose high risks of improper debris disposal as well as irreversible compacting in the plains.
5. Two pontoon bridges across the Yamuna and three smaller ones across Barapulla are being constructed. This is in direct violation of the 2015 NGT order that banned any activity on the river recognising the devastating potential of any such construction. The committee has noted that there is no way to find out whether the debris generated during the construction of the bridges has been dumped into the river.
6. The entire site, during the preparation of the venue, is littered with construction material and machinery. The construction material, if not cleared properly, could disturb ecological balances in tract and cause further ramifications in the plains.
7. Installation of around 650 portable toilets has been planned across the venue. Combined with waste generated by the millions of people expected, this would signify a substantial stress of waste disposal, which if not handled properly could lead to a further degradation of the floodplains, the groundwater and the river.
8. Around 3.5 million people in several thousands of cars are expected to throng to the venue. Several diesel-run generators would be used to power the event with chances of leaking. Such a congregation is bound to have a polluting impact in the river, the floodplains and adjoining areas within the National Capital Region.
9. It is also highly likely that the 3-day mega event shall not be able to contain the noise generated during the festival below the limits of 10 dB for loudspeakers and 75 dB for ambient noise during a public event, as specified by the Noise Pollution Rules, 2000.
10. Apart from the heavy machinery and thousands of vehicles, an enormous stage about 1200 ft long, 200 ft wide and 40 ft high is being erected to support several thousands of performers and artists. The compaction caused due to the extra load that these imply is likely to cause permanent and irreparable compaction in the floodplains which could be devastating since these are vital in terms of land subsidence and natural drainage in the region.
Both, the NGT-constituted committee as well as the committee formed by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change have agreed that the event poses great danger to the floodplains and no other such event must be permitted on the floodplains in the future. But both groups have also recognised that it is too late to roll back the activity for the event. The committee formed by NGT has come down heavily on both, the DDA, as well as the organisers for the “gross violations” of the NGT order and has recommended that the entire cost of restoration of the plains (expected to be close to Rs. 120 crore) be paid by the Art of Living Foundation. But while the economic costs may be recovered, the environmental costs might be a whole different matter and the case might open the possibility of hosting such events in the vicinity in the future. According to A K Gosain’s observations, professor in the Civil Engineering Department at IIT Delhi and a member of the fact-finding committee, “The activity cannot be termed as a benign activity and shall have a permanent footprint on the floodplain. If allowed, it shall be in complete violation of the 2015 NGT order and shall set a bad precedent.”