Wellness and spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has vowed to fight with scientific evidence the claims of an expert body that blamed his group for causing widespread damage to the Yamuna riverbanks during a global cultural fest earlier this year.
“I will fight the lies because I have done nothing to deserve this humiliation,” the spiritual and wellness guru told Firstpost in an exclusive interview at his spacious ashram on the outskirts of Bengaluru.
“My volunteers have worked with the Delhi government in its Yamuna cleaning operation. Why would I cause damage to the river and its riverbed?” asked Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
Sri Sri said his group was unfairly targeted by a host of NGOs ever since he planned the global cultural fest in the Indian Capital. “First they use an old environmental study to map damages on the Yamuna riverbed and recommend a whopping Rs 120 crore fine on us. Isn't that unrealistic and unfair? It shows the expert group did not even do their first job properly. Then, we had a top official saying he was not part of the Rs 120 crore fine recommendation group. So who pushed the fine on us? And now they are saying the damage is huge, without referring to all the scientific evidence we have offered to the expert panel,” he said.
“I have said it several times that we have not damaged the land. We will fight it out with all we have done and gathered, scientific data and satellite maps and leave it to the courts to take a decision. But we will not allow someone to treat us unfairly,” he added.
Prabhakar Rao, an environmental expert speaking on behalf of Art of Living Foundation (AOL) said, while the committee classified the WCF ground as a “wetland”, the Wetland Atlas of Delhi (released recently), the 1986 survey of India map, or other government documentation does not show this land as a “wetland”.
“By labelling this as a wetland, the committee is manipulating it to bring it under the gamut of environmental clearance. The truth is this land has always been classified as a floodplain, a sandy floodplain,” Rao said in a statement.
The bust up over the extent of damage on the plains of one of India’s most polluted river is likely to be a long-drawn affair. The National Green Tribunal, which had imposed a Rs 5 crore fine on the Bengaluru-based wellness group, will now take a look at expert committee report and resume hearings from both sides.
The NGT has a tough task on hand.
While the expert committee report has put AOL in the dock, the claims by the wellness group that the expert committee used an old report of an NGO to measure the extent of damage by pledging Rs 50 crore damage charges per acre cannot be ignored. Similar is the charge by the wellness group that the fine imposed was in total haste, without consulting the topmost member of the committee.
The Indian government has — till date — spent a little over Rs 4,000 crores to clean the Yamuna, the longest and the second largest tributary river of the Ganges. Flowing out of the Himalayas into the Hindi heartland, it travels a total length of 1,376 kilometres.
In 2015, the AAP government in Delhi, which sources 70 percent of its water needs from the river, had pledged to clean the river in three years.
Delhi water minister Kapil Mishra had even sought corporate funding for a whopping Rs 3,659 crore that he said he would need to clean the river by 2017, as per a plan given by the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
Interestingly, the AAP had then used a report of the NGT committee member Prof Brij Gopal in saying: “Yamuna is dead and flows like a nullah (drain)”. The AAP government has not been able to raise the requisite amount.
“The Yamuna river case has been heard a million times by many governments. Multiple studies have been conducted about the quality of the river, and the levels of industrial and domestic waste and amounts pledged. But nothing has happened,” said Prateek Sharma, Dean (Academics), TERI University.
The latest fight, says Sharma, is over the soil and the ecosystem in the river bank and not over the river. “And any party will need scientific evidence to back its claim,” he adds.