“It’s actually a land-grab in the name of a festival”: An interview with Vimlendu Jha

Courtesy Vimlendu Jha
13 March, 2016

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?

VJ: The WCF indicates a well organised nexus between the state and the spiritual guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. It’s actually a land-grab in the name of a festival—a well-designed way of acquiring a piece of land that later will be converted into something else. Today, you have given the land to this baba, but how many babas do we have in our country? Everyone will say, give it to me also. Will the government then say, no, you’re not a good baba, or that you’re not a big-enough baba?

How else could you grant them permission to organise and build something on the banks of the Yamuna, when the NGT already banned any kind of structures from being built there, as per their January 2015 order? It’s not as if the government was not aware. DDA, in fact, refused permission to AOL at first, saying that the NGT does not allow it. Then, DDA was approached again, and it gave them conditional permission for 24 hectares—but they are actually using 68.

Meanwhile, the AOL people made all the preparations without permits from the fire department and ministry of water resources—that’s why DDA has been penalised. The NGT’s judgment [on 9 March 2016] clearly says how all the government departments had failed in fulfilling their public duties. In a way, it’s a disservice to the nation, and the bench says so in the judgment.

IM: What are the factors indicating government support for the festival?

VJ: Everything! The fact that the army and the police are there, the culture ministry has given them 2.5 crores, and that the DDA has given them land. If they had to hold the event somewhere else, AOL would have had to pay rent. Instead, for four months they have occupied the floodplains for free, and wrecked havoc there.

What is the army for? Is it a national event? No! It’s a private event. Tomorrow, Asaram Bapu will say, I’ll also bring in 10 lakh people, so help me. Will the government again give 2.5 crores for the next mela? Is it therefore just the connivance and proximity with Narendra Modi that has made WCF possible? And is it because Arvind Kejriwal did not want to disturb the situation because he’s also being populist and building his Hindu vote-bank? Because for many people, this is a Hindu issue, not an environmental one.

The other day I was actually threatened by a Hindu Mahasabha leader, right in front of the NGT, for opposing the festival. Today, I was on a TV programme, and again I was called an anti-national. It’s funny, that by talking about Yamuna, I become anti-Hindu or anti-national. And this is when the court has told AOL that they are in the wrong! The NGT judgment has severely indicted them—Sri Sri stands convicted on the issue that he has done damage to the river.

IM: What is your response to Ravi Shankar’s claims that he is actually saving the Yamuna?

VJ: The NGT judgment clearly exposes the lies told by him—the entire posturing that he’s been doing on TV, saying he’s the biggest saviour of Yamuna. Doesn’t he know there’s something called a floodplain? It’s not just a tent-house banquet space where you can set up a seven-acre stage, where 35 lakh people will dance and chant for world peace at the cost of the environment. Today [10 March], Babaji is saying that he’ll not even pay the initial deposit of rupees five crore demanded by the NGT. Is there any respect that he has for the environment, or for the government and the rule of law? He thinks he got his certificate from the fact that Mr Modi is going to be a part of the event.

The stage doesn’t even have a security clearance from the Public Works Department (PWD). What are we risking here, and why are we being so stupid as a nation by submitting our basic right to survival and justice in front of this godman? He is a criminal in front of the people of Delhi. He’s destroying our only water resource. Of course, Yamuna is very polluted already. It has been so for many years because the government hasn’t really worked on it. But that doesn’t mean that since it’s polluted, Ravi Shankar has a right to do whatever he wishes.

IM: Could you elaborate on some of the claims made and how they stand in reality?

VJ: If you look at the AOL press release, they claim they have used eco-friendly material, and Ravi Shankar keeps repeating that. Since when have metal, steel, Plaster of Paris and [Polyvinyl Chloride, or PVC] flex banners become eco-friendly? Since when has digging holes for construction in the floodplain become eco-friendly? Since when has using JCB [a colloquial name for excavating and demolition vehicles—after the company JC Bramford] vehicles on marshy land and covering the actual vegetation become eco-friendly? AOL has claimed that they have not destroyed any vegetation, but the NGT expert committee clearly said that the entire land has been levelled—(reads from a copy of the NGT judgment)—“The floodplains have been drastically tampered with while destroying the natural flow of the river, reeds, grasses, natural vegetation on the river bed. It has further disturbed the aquatic life of the river and destroyed water bodies and wet lands on the floodplains.” What else do you need?

IM: What do you think are the key charges against the WCF?

VJ: There are three issues. One is that of public ecology. What is a river? It is what is flowing on the surface, what is beneath, and what is on both sides. It’s about the water and the vegetation, which together create the entire biodiversity of the place. So, thanks to WCF, the river, the groundwater, the birds, the plant life and animal species, and the flood recharge capacity have all been affected. Two, there’s the issue of public resource or public money—whether you consider water as a public resource, or things like the army and the police being used for the festival, or the money given by the culture ministry. Finally, there’s the issue of public safety. Do you think organising an event for 35 lakh people is a joke? Both the PWD and the Delhi Police have stated that they have serious security concerns regarding WCF. They don’t have important clearances like fire and water, but they’re still going ahead with the festival, flouting the NGT’s orders. Who will be held responsible?

IM: What will be the ecological impact of this event on the Yamuna?

VJ: Firstly, an event where 35 lakh people are coming is bound to have some footprint. Then, imagine those bridges built on the Yamuna by the army—won’t they affect its flow? Delhi is considered the second-largest urban bird sanctuary after Nairobi, and Yamuna plays a big role in that. Do you think these birds and animals like nilgais will walk into the festival and dance along? They’re in distress, they have all left. Also, hundreds of farmers have been beaten up and asked to give way in the floodplains. So here’s what they are saying—that farmers, environmentalists, birds and NGT are lying; and the only sane person we have is Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

IM: Do you think that the fines levied upon AOL might be enough to reverse the impact of the festival?

VJ: Never! One, Ravi Shankar has said that he won’t pay anything. Second, what compensation can actually revive a place that has taken thousands of years to generate? As it is, the Yamuna was in a bad shape, now they’re destroying it completely.

This interview has been edited and condensed.