By Seema Kamdar
The Art of Living’s gigantic event at the Yamuna floodplain has not damaged the river or the floodplains in any tangible way, let alone in the long term. This statement comes from Dr Rakesh Kumar, environmental scientist, and head of Mumbai office of the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute.
Dr Kumar’s statement assumes significance as the National Green Tribunal has criticised the World Culture Festival of the Art of Living (AOL) in its orders largely on the basis of expert opinion. The order had claimed that the floodplains and the natural flow of the river would be adversely affected. Dr Kumar had surveyed the World Culture Festival, organised by the Art of Living (AOL) in Delhi to assess the environmental situation on the ground. He says he had had a good look at the event from both sides of the Yamuna and though he did not tour the entire area used for the WCF, he could safely say that it is unlikely that the floodplains were going to be affected in any way by the event.
Coming as it does in the middle of a controversy over the alleged environmental damage caused by the AOL on the Yamuna floodplains, Dr Kumar’s statements stand out. “It’s required to hold more non-polluting events to bring attention to the Yamuna and make people connect to the river banks,” said Dr Kumar, who is a respected name in environmental engineering and water-related issues.
He clarified that he is not an AOL follower and his only interest in the event was professional. “On the second day of the three-day festival (March 12), I moved around the area, crossed the pontoon bridge and came to the other side of the river. So I got a reasonable decent overall glimpse of everything,” he told Firstpost.
“There were around 10 to 15 gates, which kept the flow of people comfortable. The entire layout was very well mapped. There were more than adequate toilets (650 chemical toilets to dissolve the waste and leave no residue on the ground), plenty of litterbins, and the participants were very disciplined. This was unlike many other events that I have seen.“
As for the pontoon bridges, he said those were necessary in case of the need of sudden evacuation. “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.
On the claim made by some environmentalists that the compaction of the ground would destroy the floodplains, Dr Kumar said: “Compaction is done to keep it stable. It is not critical to the environment unless it’s done for, say, water tanks holding lakhs of litres or a reservoir. Any real compaction would require two of three layers of material, which is pressured into place by road rollers. However, at the WCF, I did not see any construction-related compaction.”
In fact, he said, there were no semi-permanent structures anywhere. “Everything built was temporary and that could be easily dismantled,” he explained. “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 Art of Living has claimed that it has used eco-friendly materials like wood, mud and cloth. For instance, it has said, the ramp to the stage was made of mud, as was the pathway. No cement or concrete was used in any form. Not trees were cut. The wetland was covered with construction debris and weeds; they remained untouched except that the debris and weeds were removed.
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 artists 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.
Because no digging was undertaken, Dr Kumar said the dais was safe.
Although he is uninterested in stepping into the controversy that the event has been rigged up to become, he maintained that on the basis of whatever he saw no real damage appears to have been done to the river of the floodplains.
Insisting that it is important to keep the spotlight on the Yamuna, he cited the example of Mithi river in Mumbai. “The reason Mithi could not really be salvaged is because everyone had made it their backyard. Now that there are bridges connecting the river, you can see what people are doing to it. This exposure is important,” he said. It’s not as if the Yamuna is being taken care of otherwise – quite the opposite in fact, he said. “The banks of Yamuna are perpetually being abused all through the year by many...with garbage, illegal activities, gambling, unauthorised hutments, etc.“
Incidentally, the Art of Living had taken up the task of cleaning the Yamuna in 2010 in a campaign they called ‘Meri Dilli, Meri Yamuna’. It claimed to have cleared 512 tonnes of garbage and toxic debris, which is said provided it enough “confidence” to mount the WCF – that and its efforts at “reviving 17 rivers in India”. Two years ago, the Karnataka High Court had acknowledged its work in river rejuvenation as a role model for the rest of the state.
Last year, when AOL decided to host the WCF near the Yamuna, the land was far from a green paradise that many environmentalists have been projecting it to be. More than 20 acres of the site was filled with debris from Delhi’s construction sites.
After clearing and cleaning a land filled with rotting garbage and debris, the next challenge came from the river – how to get rid of the foul stench from the Yamuna. Toxic waste was being dumped in the river for years through the drains that made it impossible for anyone to stand on the river bank for two minutes, let alone host a three-day festival. The organisers then injected enzymes made from raw household waste and worked on reducing the pollutants in the water.
Correction: This report has been amended to rectify an error: Dr Rakesh Kumar visited the site of the World Culture Festival on 12 March and not 14 March as stated earlier.