Between 11 to 13 March 2016, the volunteer-based non-government organisation, the Art of Living (AOL) group organised a World Cultural Festival. The event, held on the floodplains of the Yamuna, in Delhi, had over 3.5 million participants plodding on the fragile ecosystem. The festival, which “demonstrated the power of unity and peace,” came at a heavy cost. The entire area of the floodplain between the river and the Delhi Noida Direct highway had been levelled flat. The small water bodies in the area had been filled up; natural vegetation had been uprooted; and most of the trees had been “lopped or removed.” An enormous stage—1200 feet long, 200 feet wide and 40 feet high—had been erected, and the floodplains were littered with construction debris.
On 20 February 2016, a team led by Shashi Shekhar, Chairman of a committee appointed by the NGT visited the site near the DND flyover to observe the damage done to the site observed. They observed “In this entire area, the flood plain has been completely destroyed, and the large number of birds and other natural life that was supported by the floodplain has vanished due to this destruction.” The resulting backlash and the NGT’s acknowledgement that AOL had caused severe damage to the floodplains saw an interim fine of Rs 5 crore levied on the organisation.
Yet, despite the damning report, the NGT asked AOL to pay the fine before the event began. But the tribunal gave the event the go-ahead, noting that it would adjust the interim fine against the final compensation that AOL would subsequently have to pay for the damage to the floodplains an amount the NGT would decide later." The fine was to be paid before the event was underway. On 11 March, Tripti Dhawan, a 69-year-old member of the board of Vyakti Vikas Kendra India (VVKI), a trust under AOL, gave an undertaking to the NGT that they would pay upto Rs 25 lakh on that very day and the remaining amount of Rs 4.75 crore would be paid over the coming three weeks. These weeks were ended on 1 April, and on 3 April, the trust requested the NGT to accept a bank guarantee of Rs 4.75 crore instead of submitting cash as it had originally undertaken.
Before agreeing to cough up the Rs 25 lakh, AOL had stated that it was unable to pay a sum as large as five crores before the event, that as a charitable organisation, it needed time to raise the amount. The AOL counsel, as reported by the Indian Express on 23 April, told the tribunal that the guarantee was as good as cash. The bench shot back, “Then why don’t you pay the cash?”
Considering AOL’s statement to the tribunal, one could be misled into assuming that the organisation is truly lacking for cash and dependent on charity from its followers. Consequently, one can’t be blamed if they think AOL’s finances are on shaky ground. However, this is far from the truth.