By Apoorv Pathak:
The flagrant violation of public safety safeguards and disregard for environmental concerns in hosting the World Culture Festival has turned the event into a disaster waiting to happen.
The Delhi High Court has termed it as an ecological disaster. An expert committee has estimated that the cost of undoing the damage to the environment would amount to Rs. 120 crores. The Central Public Works Department has judged its stage to be structurally unsafe. The Delhi Police has flagged it for serious security concerns and over 80 farmers are on a protest for illegal takeover their cropland without any due compensation.
So, one would have thought the event would be cancelled. But, even with the organisers facing harsh legal action, alas, one would be mistaken. Such is the influence of the spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar that not just will he have the prime minister attend the event, he has also refused to pay the symbolic fine of Rs. five crores, confident that the rule of law in India does not apply to spiritual gurus.
The brazen contempt for rules, though problematic in itself, has severely undermined public interest and left the public at the mercy of the gods to face disasters to which it seems they have deliberately been made vulnerable by a benign neglect of norms.
Every summer Delhi suffers from a chronic shortage of groundwater which is an important source of water for Delhi. The floodplains of the Yamuna are the most important groundwater recharging sites. By damaging their natural conditions and hardening the surface as is required for the event, their ability to absorb water would be significantly reduced. This is among the important reasons why construction activity is prohibited above the floodplains.
By holding such a large-scale event in this ecologically vital and vulnerable area, the groundwater recharge will be affected, worsening Delhi’s water crisis.
The consequence of reduced water absorption ability won’t just be limited to water scarcity but also extend to worsening the flooding Delhi witness every monsoon. Any such large-scale exemption of prohibition on activities on the floodplain sets a bad precedent for conservation in future. When the violations of Commonwealth were legitimised, the current organiser used that as an excuse to get away with it as well. If this is allowed, a plethora of violations will follow as there is no reason why others should not be extended the same favour.
Every year or two our disregard for water bodies, their floodplains and marshland comes back to haunt us. If it was Uttarkashi floods in 2013, then it was the Kashmir flood in 2014 and Chennai in 2015. Why would we deliberately turn the gaze of nature towards Delhi for it to unleash its wrath in 2016?
Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it. Year in and year out the nation loses many precious lives due to ill managed mass gatherings where adequate arrangements to handle the crowd are missing. This event has all the factors that increase the chances of a stampede. With the river on one side and weak soil on the other, the site has a narrow access. The weak ground, it is possible, might give in due to the pressure of millions gathering on it and the stage lacks proper structural support. Also, mitigating measures are conspicuous due to their absence. Heaven forbid if there is some mishap, who will be responsible? The politicians who caved in to appease the powerful spiritual leader or the courts who were presented with a fait accompli and could do precious little than fine it?
The sad reality is that the event exposed the rotten collusion between our politicians and spiritual gurus. They care a penny for the impact of their action on the common citizens. The gurus claim to help us discover the gods. In this instance, indeed, they did help us discover the gods but in a very perverse way – we are left at the mercy of the gods and have no alternative but hope. All we can do is pray that the gods are watching out for us, else, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.