Art of Living festival is no threat to Yamuna

In their enthusiasm, environment activists tend to ignore the larger benefits that the event can bring to the cause of cleaning up the river.

 |  6-minute read |   01-03-2016
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As the nation grapples with the rising chasm in society over the JNU row, every  patriotic Indian needs to be concerned over the rising love for negative activism in  the country. Be it events to stand up for Afzal Guru or Yakub Memon or to lionise Mahishasura or to call for Azadi, misdirected activism is beginning to hurt the very idea of India.

This trend of "blind activism" must ring an alarm bell as we live in an age where any self-affirming agenda can be pushed through to millions with just a hashtag. When such activism gets undue publicity, it tends to gain legitimacy and could hurt the image of India. The latest case in point is the noise over the Art of Living’s plans of hosting an Olympic-like cultural festival in Delhi. In the last couple of days, the media in Delhi have put out one-sided stories suggesting that the event will put Yamuna’s floodplains in danger.

A closer look at the preparations going around at the proposed venue for the World Culture Festival (WCF) in Mayur Vihar, however, points to the contrary. The kind of planning and care the organisers have taken makes the ongoing activities look more like a Yamuna floodplain rejuvenation initiative rather than cleaning up the ground for WCF!

“Our volunteers have been pushing for ‘Clean Yamuna’ campaigns from a long time. We intend to create awareness about cleaning the river to lakhs of people who would come to the festival. It is being hosted around the Yamuna to bring attention to cleaning it. Hence, it is ridiculous to say that we will be causing damage to the Yamunaji,” says globally-revered spiritual guru and humanitarian Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, whose Art of Living is hosting the festival with the vision of spreading the message of "One World Family" or "Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam".

“We have not dumped any debris in the riverbed. Instead, we have cleared the area of construction debris, toxic, plastics, etc previously dumped by others. The machines one sees onsite are for removing the debris,” explains Saraswati (Akshama Nath Advocate ) for Art of Living. According to her, when the Art of Living got the permission from Delhi Development Authority (DDA) to use the land for the festival, about 20-25 acres of it was covered with construction debris (locally known as malba) of about 10-15 ft high. “Alarmed by the state of the land, we approached DDA with the pictures and they instructed us to clear it up at our own cost. We have been clearing the malba at our own cost and taking care of it,” she explains.

“We have done no damage to the floodplain as alleged. We have just cleaned up the filthy area of debris. Contrary to the allegations, we have not cleared the area of any greenery or leveled it by dumping debris,” asserts Saraswati. “The Art of Living has adhered to all guidelines like no concrete structures, maintaining safe distance from the bank, etc,” she adds. “We are taking many steps that will set examples for reducing the footprint on the environment,” she reiterates. She cites the plan to create 650 bio-toilets with a view to ensure that toilet waste doesn't flow into the Yamuna.

“The Art of Living reveres the environment. We have never violated nor do we have any intention to violate any laws. We have followed and undertake to follow all the guidelines, recommendations and directives,” asserts a statement from the organisation. “ The organisation is committed to clearing all the temporary structures immediately after the event. We are also not creating any parking area on the floodplains or constructing any pucca road. We have only created a temporary pathway,” explains Saraswati.

“We have only used eco-friendly material like wood, mud, cloth and steel scaffolding for building a temporary stage,” she adds.

The larger point is that in their enthusiasm to champion their agenda, activists tend to ignore the larger benefits that such an event can bring to the cause of cleaning up Yamuna and the country. With people from more than 150 countries expected to congregate at the festival, it would do a lot of good to India’s image of a tolerant nation. It will also give a big boost to the tourism industry.

More importantly, the festival could herald better days for Yamunaji. Sri Sri has already assured that he will make sure that the place is left much cleaner and better than what it was. “After the World Culture Festival, the Yamuna cleaning project will continue as all our volunteers are excited to make it cleaner and greener,” he tweeted on Sunday.

Even Delhi minister for water and tourism and chairman of Delhi Jal Board Kapil Mishra feels the same way. In a series messages on a microblogging site, he articulated how the festival will bring public attention to cleaning the Yamuna. “I have supported the event. It is a good idea that will see lakhs of people come to the Yamuna and build a connection with the river. They will see its condition and it will put pressure on officials and us politicians to make sure we clean and revive the river,” he tweeted.

And if that does happen then, by the end of the festival, we would have won a battle, if not the war, against the pollution in the Yamuna. While floodplains of a river are not “an open expanse of land up for grab” and they are vital for ecological protection, letting them rot under piles of debris could be disastrous. All over the world, floodplains are managed and developed as community assets. In the US, Washington department of ecology even runs a dedicated initiative Floodplains by Design to ensure floodplains are developed, managed and used in ways that are socially beneficial, while maintaining or even improving flood protection.

A mere Google search of the keyword “floodplains” throws up information on how the floodplains of the Nile River have been Egypt's centre of agriculture for thousands of years. It also says that the floodplains between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are home to some of the world's earliest civilisations and first cities.

But in India, there has been no specific planning to harness, preserve and maintain them. From this perspective, Sri Sri’s long-term vision of cleaning up Yamuna floodplains and rescuing those from becoming dumping yards, while hosting the festival needs to be hailed. People who are familiar with the area are excited that the “cleaning” the Art of Living is doing will lead to reduction in the stink that they have to bear whenever they cross the area.

It’s not just construction upon floodplain that affects the natural flow of the river and causes environment problems. Unchecked pollution could spell greater disasters.

Are green activists missing the woods for the trees?

Writer

M Rajaque Rahman M Rajaque Rahman @rajaque

A former journalist, the author currently facilitates spiritual-based workshops of the Art of Living. His writings focus on adding spiritual aspects to things worldly.

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