On 9 March 2016, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), a special tribunal conceived in 2010 to handle cases pertaining to environmental issues, ordered the Art of Living (AOL) foundation—headed by the spiritual leader Ravi Shankar—to pay an initial environmental compensation of five crores for the damages inflicted to the Yamuna river by the World Culture Festival (WCF), an event organised by the AOL. The AOL asked for more time. The NGT relented, asking the foundation to pay 25 lakhs initially and the remainder over three weeks. The preparations for the WCF—held from 11-13 March attendedby Prime Minister Narendra Modi—on the banks of the river had been wrecking havoc upon the river’s ecosystem.
On 10 March 2016, Ishan Marvel, a web reporter at The Caravan, spoke to Vimlendu Jha, the founder of Swechha, a Delhi-based organisation that has been working on issues related to the environment, education and social enterprises since its inception in 2000. Jha revealed how the AOL and Ravi Shankar have been flouting the NGT orders and making false claims in the press, all the while, ruining the Yamuna with the government’s support.
Ishan Marvel: How did the campaign against the World Culture Festival (WCF) come about?
Vimlendu Jha: There is a close-knit circle of activists who work on Yamuna-based issues. As far as the NGT case is concerned, Manoj Misra, who runs Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan [a civil society consortium dedicated to the restoration of the river] was the petitioner. He found the announcement for the festival on the AOL website last year, and wrote a letter to the lieutenant governor of Delhi [Najeeb Jung] in December 2015, asking how could such an event be permitted. It was around the time when AOL received the permission from the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). Misra wrote to them as well. In addition, he kept sending applications to all the concerned government departments, asking how they were allowing the WCF to take place. But there was no satisfactory reply. So, in February, as a last resort, he moved to the court and filed the petition with the NGT.
IM: How was AOL able to go through with the event despite the public backlash?