Mitali Saran: Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and the art of too little, too late

The “biggest ever festival of dance and music” being held on the Yamuna floodplains this weekend has gotten away with environmental murder. To destroy a thousand hectares of sensitive wetland; to fill the river with debris; to construct a seven-acre stage for 35,000 dancers; to clear trees and reeds; to compact the spongy floodplains that naturally recharge the river; to invite unlimited visitors; to do all this, and to claim that it is all to draw attention to the Yamuna — well, one can only ask Ravi Shankar, who calls himself Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: what are you smoking? And how stupid do you think we are? The single purpose of the World Culture Festival is to celebrate 35 years of the Art of Living telling people to breathe from the tummy. There will be many important guests. There will be many stakeholders in the idea of Hindu culture. The river can go to hell.

People who still give a toss about the environment have been yelling about the irreparable damage to an already pitiful river ecosystem. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) rightly got mad, asked some hard questions, and said some severe things to the organisers, so in the end its order to go ahead, with conditions, has come as an enormous disappointment.

How is a teeny-tiny Rs 5 crore fine — which Ravi Shankar has refused to pay — going to help the Yamuna’s regenerative capacity? How do Delhi’s development and pollution authorities get away with jokey fines of Rs 1 lakh and Rs 5 lakh for not certifying rules compliance in time? Who wants to bet that the bio-diversity park they’re supposed to build by way of penance, will comprise of a few hedges around some horrible water fountain?

Delhi’s river — that mangy, smelly, desperate thing — has once more been thrown under the bus by a happy godman backed by a godman-happy government. The World Culture Festival has managed this in the same way that many large projects do: by being politically connected, by quietly becoming too big to fail, and in the end by brazening out the public relations.

Amazingly, the citizens who petitioned the court have been accused of lazily speaking up at the last minute. As they rightly point out, they spoke up when it came to their attention; government agencies, on the other hand, exist to fulfil this function in a timely way. It is their job. Where was the Aam Aadmi Party government through this mess?  

And what is Mr Kejriwal smoking? How does he defend flouting law and common sense with a tweet that can be roughly interpreted to mean: “Now that the NGT has given the go ahead please don’t make a scene the President has already backed out of attending it’s still unclear if the Prime Minister will come guest of honour Robert Mugabe has discovered he’s busy so just shhhhh please please please”?

N B: Robert Mugabe, that homophobic, autocratic thug, figured this show would reflect badly on him.

Supporters of the World Culture Festival say that musician Yanni has performed on the river bank, the Akshardham temple is on the river bank, and criticism of this event is just anti-Hindu. Apparently they think that treating unforgiveable errors as role models is a good idea.

The Indian Army, which holds pride of place in the nationalist narrative, was made to build bridges across the river. Supporters of the World Culture Festival consider it to be such a wonderfully large and famous and fancy international event that it requires national support. I am what these people would call an anti-national, but even I bridle at the idea of soldiers being ordered into the service of a private citizen’s ego party. Frankly, the phrase “How dare you criticise the country when our jawans are building pontoon bridges for a private event” just doesn’t have the same ring.

The bottom line is that environmentalists have always had a hard fight against state and corporation, but the going is now a whole lot tougher. The new nationalism openly twins state and religion, makes a virtue out of loudly worshipping India even as it tramples all over it, and sees environmental concern as a nuisance. It wants to guard India, but is disinterested in protecting and nurturing it. It takes a staggering inversion of democratic and ethical values to think that public criticism tarnishes the image of India, but that publicly inciting one community to hate another, or publicly holding our environment in contempt, is a step towards greatness.

The government should have put a cap on the allowable number of visitors, or picked another venue. But as they say, that’s water under the bridge. The real spectacle this weekend is the marriage of politics, religion, money, and pride, on the rich vote banks of the Yamuna.

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