By Padma Rao Sundarji
In an hour from now, two spanking new pontoon bridges - assembled across the Yamuna in no time by our sturdy army jawans at the order of the Government of India - will be thrown open. For the next three evenings, about 5 lakh residents of Delhi and neighbouring Noida are expected to stream across to witness the World Culture Festival (WCF) hosted by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living (AoL) meditation and wellness program, on the highly fragile floodplains of the dying river.
If public opinion had had its way, the Big Bash may not have taken place, at least not at this venue. But the National Green Tribunal (NGT) yesterday gave it a green signal with a caveat: that the AoL Foundation pay Rs 5 crore, the first instalment of a hefty fine for not seeking the Tribunal's clearance in time, before the first gate at the event is thrown open.
The controversy around the WCF has already taken casualties. President Pranab Mukherji is staying home. Zimbabwe's controversial president Robert Mugabe -known in his country as a 'serial traveller' for his penchant for lavish trips at tax-payers' expense - flew all the way to India but took the next plane back home, citing 'inadequate security'. Many other international statesmen and guests may not show up too. We shall know when the WCF's parallel daytime event - its 'Global Leadership Forum' (GLF) - begins on Saturday morning.
Whatever the Zimbabwean head of state may have cited as a reason for his returning home prematurely, the attendance of international VIPs has ensured a posse of sniffer dogs and the presence of more than 5000 policemen of the already resources and staff-strapped Delhi Police. Thousands of their counterparts of the traffic wing will be working 16-18 hours days over the weekend too.
It cannot escape the notice of even the less-religiously inclined BJP voter, ie, the so-called 'centrist', that Hindu religious functions and rituals have proliferated, ever since the party came to power with an overwhelming majority in 2014. Indeed and though their bashes have always been carefully peppered with the Ram-Robert-Rahim formula: Bollywood's tried and tested masala created to promote 'secularism' , the top-note of AoL's functions remains markedly 'Hindu',
At the WCF too, spiritual leaders swathed in veshtis, kanduras, keffiyehs and cassocks will cast their benign gaze upon African drummers, Turkish dervishes and Bharatanatyam nayikas and their dizzying display of 'universal brotherhood' . It is hoped that this artistic oneness will intoxicate thousands in the audience, make them realize just how like each other they are and - fervently swear to end all conflict, hunger and poverty on earth.
No harm in dreaming, of course. And no doubts at all in the fact that AoL has successfully packaged and marketed its cross-cultural potpourri around the world for decades. More power to what is essentially a Made in India product.
So why, then, does widespread annoyance still persist, especially among those resident in Delhi, over this event?
Can it be the usual knee-jerk reaction of our urban, western-educated chatterati against anything even remotely 'Hindu'? No.
Why, even the Congress - usually the instigator of that familiar patellar twitch - is relatively silent, at least on that score, preferring to point to the larger issue of potential damage to Delhi's already dying lifeline, the Yamuna, on whose floodplains a gigantic tent city of carpets, gilded domes, chabootras and papier mache elephants has sprung up overnight (after chopping trees, razing vegetable crops grown by poor, subsistence farmers on rented pattas and dangerously compacting 1000 acres of floodplain earth) instead.
"There is a disconnect," Congress MP Shashi Tharoor explains. "Between the sad state of the Yamuna and the organization of an event on its bed that causes such environmental damage, indeed devastation."
(Of course the same Congress under Delhi's Sheila Dixit government thought nothing of building the swank CWG housing complex or the DTC bus depot on the Yamuna floodplains many years ago, but that's another matter)
Is it the damage to the river bank that is bothering us then? Hardly.
There is not a single Indian who is not aware of the limitless and perhaps irreversible - savagery we have committed upon all our rivers, especially the holiest Ganga and Yamuna, over -at least - the 100 years of rapid industrialization. The Yamuna continues to be the dumping stream for animal carcasses, industrial effluents, disease-carrying hospital wastes, bio-degradable plastic, fibre-glass, E-Waste, PVC religious statues and toxic chemical byproducts. Indeed, the countless 'Action Plans' drawn up by various governments too, have seemingly floated to the bottom of the river bed, along with other garbage.
So what is it then, that is leaving this bitter taste in Indian mouths about this event? The order of the NCT itself? After all, that would be in keeping with the current fashion of trashing and disrespecting judicial verdicts.
Not even that. For good or bad, the order has been passed and the event will go ahead. Noam Chomsky, Amartya Sen and Arundhati Roy have not put down their contempt for our courts in writing. (Yet).
The World Culture Festival has annoyed millions of ordinary Indians and given the AoL's otherwise impeccable reputation a bad name for a simple but very familiar reason : the audacity of privilege. AoL's incomplete application for permission has received extraordinary, kid-gloved treatment and handling at the hands of all the authorities it has passed through.
Be it the Congress, the AAP or the BJP, each and every party vows to put an end to 'VIP culture'. The proverbial old man in the dhoti and calloused feet, fighting for 20 years in a lower court to get his pension, has repeatedly fallen for that assurance and voted for whoever promised that relief.
But the silken-smooth facilitation of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's soiree by at least one concerned body, the Delhi Development Authority (and therewith the Ministry of Urban Development to which it reports) with no questions asked, the instruction to the army to build bridges for what is essentially a private party and the stentorian orders issued to Delhi Police to ensure security to it, all prove that VIP privileges are well and alive even 70 years after Independence.
Irrespective of the BJP's energetically- publicized 'Swachch Bharat' and 'Clean Ganga' campaigns, the menace of sand mining and indiscriminate construction on river banks all over the country and despite AoL withholding relevant information and bypassing several of the listed procedures to get permission for the event, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's shindig has been cleared by notoriously-slothful sarkari employees (whose tardiness towards ordinary petiitioners is legendary) with breathtaking speed.
Of course it doesn't take a degree in public administration to know why. For one, because Prime Minister Narendra Modi and almost all senior members of his cabinet will be in attendance. And secondly, because Sri Sri Ravi Shankar seems to have indeed become the BJP's 'in-house guru', as a Congress supporter points out.
Bribes may not have been paid, rules may not have been bent (as nebulous as they are and as stupidly spread over more than a dozen different authorities). Yet, all Indians intuitively know that that the bigger the ticket, the faster even the toughest of clearances.
If there is one thing to criticize about the NGT: it is its permission for the event to take place in the nth minute, despite agreeing with virtually every criticism proffered by the petitioners in its verdict.
Last year, a private event featuring one of the biggest comedy stars in the world, Jerry Seinfeld received permission and then was denied it just two days before the show at the NSCI grounds in Mumbai on flimsy grounds, causing massive losses. But then, what's a small, 70-man Mumbai entertainment company compared to the mighty Sri Sri Ravi Shankar?
The fast-tracking of VIP demands is so deeply entrenched in our system that Sri Sri's event has unwittingly brought about a surprising - if temporary - unity between urban liberals and BJP-voting centrists - who usually abuse each other as 'bleeding-hearts' and 'chaddiwallahs' respectively. For once, everyone is left gasping at the audacity of what Sri Sri has pulled off only because of his reported 'closeness' to the establishment.
"When I needed 3 acres of river bed to mount a small Yamuna-Elbe art project jointly sponsored by the governments of India and Germany some years ago, it took me an entire year to get clearance," says environmental activist Ravi Agarwal. "Yet, here are 1000 acres sanctioned within days.Is this for real?"
Agarwal's Toxics Link is part of the consortium which petitioned the NGT against the World Culture Festival. He vehemently disputes the criticism that they waited too long to do so, pointing out that it is the usual norm to approach the organizers, in this case AoL, before going to a tribunal. "It is also a question of courtesy since after all, AoL has indeed been doing some admirable social service in so many areas".
Beginning in October 2015, the petitioners wrote to Sri Sri, PM Modi, the Lieutenant-Governor of Delhi and DDA, pleading with them to reconsider the chosen venue for the event. There was no response. Even the media was informed but remained disinterested, says Agarwal. That is, till the NGT sat up and took notice just weeks before the event. "The fact that this event is taking place only proves the clout that the AoL enjoys in the corridors of power and - an utter disdain for the environment on part of both the central and state government," says the disgusted activist.
But surely those who support the event as a great idea to "showcase India" are not wrong in pointing out that hardly any damage is likely to be wrought to the river by an event that will last only three days?
"Several studies have shown the flood plain to be a major water recharge area and home to much bio-diversity," counters Agarwal. "This fact has been ignored. It also shows a lack of knowledge on part of AoL on the specifications of the Yamuna's floodplains. How can they naively say they will 'restore it', when they don't know what has been destroyed in the first place? Please refer to INTACH and Professor Vikram Soni, a well-known physicist and IIT alumnus. They have researched groundwater contamination on the riverfront. We at Toxics Link have conducted toxicity studies on the river water. Chemicals like paints and cleaning agents that have been used at the site of this grand jamboree, are going to make that worse. Also please don't forget, the event may end on Monday, but the entire activity of building and dismantling the humongous construction will have totaled months."
So who's coming to this expensive jamboree which AoL says vaguely (and irrespective of laws stating that charitable organizations must make their sources of income known) is 'funded by the people, for the people?" And what does AoL think it will achieve by hosting it?
Apart from a plethora of 'world musicians and dancers', there's, well, Charlie Rose, TV talk show host. Then, the deputy commander of the Fijian Army (from a country that has been under military rule since 2014). There are representatives of the Andean Parliament, one of whom helped decontaminate a local lake and a basin. The list is also studded with lots of loyal supporters of PM Modi like Subhash Thakrar of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who told the BBC way back in 2013 that if (Modi) 'is a prospective prime minister, then we need to make sure that he is well connected with us before other countries do it." Once fined heavily for its role as auditors for Satyam computers during the scandal involving the latter in 2009, PriceWaterHouse Cooper will be represented too. Mysteriously, so will Germany's football world: through a former manager who admitted to using cocaine in 2002 and was later dismissed as trainer of a Turkish football team in 2014. Banks abound - from the World Bank (mysteriously listed in bold as a 'Strategic Partner' and deliberately left unexplained by AoL's spokesman upon FirstPost's queries) to the commercial Doha Bank to our very own Yes Bank. There are plenty of policy wonks and equally mystifyingly, a great number of experts in' cyber-security'. There are also Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena and its erstwhile foreign minister Prof GL Peiris, who is currently locked in combat with Sirisena over implementing a trade agreement with India that Peiris's own government had enthusiastically pursued when former President Rajapaksa was in power. And then there are the usual suspects from Pakistan, always a fixture at any private Indian event which professes to aim at 'global peace'. Like Pakistani senate member Sherry Rahman who once shuddered on camera about how 'ugly Indian male politicians' were. She will have to grin and bear a whole host of them for the coming three days, since practically the entire top-rung (and not so shabby-looking) Modi cabinet will be in attendance.
Unfortunately for Sherry Rahman, there is not a single speaker from the oppositional Congress, not even the extremely erudite and photogenic Jyotiraditya Scindia and Shashi Tharoor. (Global unity and world peace must surely begin at home? Is that possible by excluding the country's oldest political party altogether ? And surely the best way of proving the BJP's influence over the organizers?)
"I received an invitation," says Tharoor. "But as a guest, not as a speaker."
Finally, let's ask ourselves what the cultural festival and the 'leadership summit' are going to achieve. After all, Woodstock came and went, so did George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh. They neither guaranteed the end of conflicts, nor did they prevent starvation deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.
Will Sri Sri's Big Bash ensure "world peace", 'ethical business' and 'universal brotherhood', at least over the weekend?
Will UK PM David Cameron's message of 'peace, harmony and understanding between people of different faiths' to the Festival guarantee that his country will stop arming Saudi Arabia to continue its bombing of Yemen?
Will the 'angelic' Coalition of the Willing - each country of which is represented at the Big Bash on the banks of the Yamuna - stop bombing Syria and Iraq?
Will African internecine wars miraculously cease? Will the ISIS go down on its knees, accept handcuffs and say they are sorry?
Will Al-Qaida and Boko Haram lay down arms and offer red roses?
Will the endless motormouths within the BJP radical fringe, who constantly undercut the achievements of the party leadership through their mindless statements, sew their mouths in contrition ?
Will a contrite Vijay Mallya fly back on Economy to pay Kingfisher employees their dues with interest?
The only person qualified to answer that is the man who after a long and distinguished career as an international diplomat, almost became the Secretary-General of the United Nations.
"There can't be a co-relation between any such extravaganza and world peace, except to the tangential extent of increasing consciousness on the part of the delegates," says Shashi Tharoor. "Violators of global peace don't attend such festivals."
The author is the former South Asia bureau chief of Der Spiegel.
Tarique Anwar contributed to this story.