New Delhi: National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (Neeri) has distanced itself from the comments made by one of its senior scientific officers, Rakesh Kumar, who gave a clean chit to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living (AOL) Foundation for organising a three-day World Culture Festival (WCF) on Yamuna floodplains in Delhi recently.
The comments made by chief scientist and head of Neeri’s Zonal Lab Mumbai, Rakesh Kumar in the media mentioning that no damage had been caused to Yamuna floodplains due to the festival conducted by AOL Foundation have raked up controversy. The environmental activists working for the cause of river Yamuna have questioned Neeri on the grounds that led Kumar to conclude that no damage was caused to the Yamuna river floodplain.
Recently, an article in Firstpost (20 March) titled ‘World culture festival didn’t damage Yamuna floodplain, says Neeri expert giving Art of Living clean chit’, quoted Mumbai-based Kumar saying, “No real damage appears to have been done to the river or the floodplains.”
Meanwhile, Neeri has sought explanation from Kumar for making a public statement, which is against the norms of the organization.
Neeri is an environmental research institute of national importance and is a part of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which has been created and funded by government of India, and is headquartered in Nagpur.
Tapas Nandy, acting director of Neeri told Firstpost, “Neeri has nothing to do with this case or any study if being undertaken by Rakesh Kumar during the WCF or with his statements appeared in the media. This organisation didn’t conduct any survey or study on Yamuna floodplains during the festival.”
“No official permission was taken by Kumar. Neither any of my colleagues nor I had any information about his visit to WCF. I came to know about it from an outsider after the article got published and the next day I shot an explanation mail to him. But till now, I haven’t received any response from Kumar. We’ve given him a working day to respond, but now we’ll take necessary step. His statement in the media on whether any damage had been caused to Yamuna floodplains due to the festival came to me as a surprise,” said Nandy.
Rakesh Kumar’s comments on WCF
• I didn’t see any damage to the river due to the pontoon bridge,” he said. In any case, pontoon bridges are very common in the north. On the issue of the use of the army, the AOL has already said the Delhi government requisitioned the forces to ensure safety of the participants.
• I visited the venue on the second day in a police vehicle and even though it was an SUV, the tyres sank in the mud due to the rain. There was no compaction of the kind that could have a lasting effect. They would have perhaps laid some rubble where vehicular movement was anticipated but even at those places, the ground was very muddy beyond a point.
• The seven-acre dais rested on itself; it had no foundation in the river or the riverbed, a fact that led to concern among some sections of the media that the stage would cave under the weight of thousands of performing artistes and attendees. It was built over-ground, of scaffolding material, with a shuttering plate beneath scaffolding and wooden boards on top. The stage held for the three days of the festival… no digging was undertaken.
• No real damage appears to have been done to the river of the floodplains.
Environmentalists raise red flag; write to Neeri
Even as environmentalists have slammed Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's WCF terming it an ecological disaster, the one-day flying visit of Kumar, an environmental scientist, has raised doubts on his intention to do so, without any prior permission from his own organisation. Especially, when the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that has slapped an initial fine of Rs 5 crore on AOL Foundation and constituted a probe panel of experts to do a post-event review of the festival site.
Paritosh Tyagi, former chief, Central Board of Pollution Control remarked, “There’s no doubt that damage has been caused to floodplain due to use of manual work and machines to flatten the plain and compaction for making roads, platforms etc. It’ll reduce the recharging capacity of groundwater, which is of immense importance. Opening Yamuna floodplain to such events is damaging and wrongly conceived. It’s not possible to review the impact by making a single day visit to the venue.”
Meanwhile, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, a consortium working for restoration of river Yamuna has written to Neeri questioning the authenticity of Kumar’s statement.
Manoj Mishra, convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan said, “We’ve written to Neeri to know about its involvement and whether it had conducted any study during the festival by deputing Rakesh Kumar. Unless this fact is confirmed, it would be incorrect to bring in Neeri as an institution into the matter. Neeri has expertise in environmental engineering, and it is not an institution with any in-depth scientific capacity to study rivers as ecological entities including the importance of ecological sensitivities involved with river flood plains. It’s most unlikely that the person in question has any expertise or mandate to assess ecological damages that have resulted from the event in question. Moreover ecological damages in such matters occur as much during the process of carrying out any construction activity as much from the construction itself or the high footfall during the event.”
The article clearing AOL has been displayed prominentl on the home page of the websites of The Art of Living and its branches.
Anand Arya, an environmental expert remarked, “A walk through when the function is on is hardly a scientific way of making any kind of assessment. He himself says he was there for a limited period. It’s irresponsible of any individual to rope in the name of an institution (Neeri) when there is no assignment given to that institution and also to the person. The Neeri scientist has blindly supported the AOL's event, asserting it has not damaged the river or the floodplains in any tangible way, let alone in the long term. Are these statements based on some proper study or research?”
A few unanswered questions
• In what capacity Kumar visited AOL’s WCF in Delhi on 12 March?
• If he wasn’t representing Neeri, why did he conduct the study, on whose behalf and to prove what?
• If he wasn’t representing Neeri, how did he visit the venue in a police vehicle — SUV (by his own admission)?
• “Compaction is done to keep it stable. It is not critical to the environment unless it’s done for, say, water tanks… I did not see any construction-related compaction” – As the festival was in full swing, with lakhs of visitors around, how could Kumar conduct such a detailed and in-depth study on compaction and its effect?
• There were no semi-permanent structures anywhere. Everything built was temporary and that could be easily dismantled.
• “I didn’t see any damage to the river due to the pontoon bridge.” In the midst of the festival, when the entire area was under decoration and the pontoon bridge was in place on the river, how could Kumar conclude that there was no damage to the river? What technical examination did he conduct?
• How could Kumar say with such conviction that no digging was done? Did he visit the venue prior to the event? Evidences have already been presented before the NGT that iron poles and mechanical structures were erected by digging the ground.
The calls made and the SMSes and email sent by Firstpost to Kumar have not been responded to.