Sri Sri Ravi Shankar
After thrice rejecting the Art of Living’s mega event, World Cultural Festival, on the bank of Yamuna in Delhi, Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung has approved it through the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). A copy of the order was also marked to the personal secretary of Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu, by the chief engineer of DDA.
The DDA, in its eventual clearance to the event, laid down a few conditions. The three-day event was to be held at a safe and sufficient distance from the edge of the river. DDA did not specify the 'sufficient distance’. The order said organisers should use only eco-friendly material, but it has not defined eco-friendly material.
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The order also prohibited organisers from concretising the space and dumping anything at the site after the event is over. It also mentions that arrangement for toilets were to be made, considering the AOL expects millions of visitors.
A security deposit of Rs 15 lakh was charged from AOL with the warning that any violation of the conditions or those imposed by other authorities could lead to the cancellation of the permission.
To sum it up, the conditions were as vague as they can get. The two expert bodies formed as a consequence of litigation have now concluded that the event has caused damage to the site and that the organisers have violated the conditions.
Logically, the DDA should have promptly taken back the permission as per its laid down conditions. But it has not.
An exception was made in the first place for the Vyakti Vikas Kendra – the registered trust which is to hold the Art of Living event associated with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the spiritual guru. There are no laid-down standard norms to permit such, or even much smaller, events on the Yamuna bank, which is already stressed with existing constructions and encroachments over the years.
The court’s expert body, after finding serious damage to the site, has suggested a fine of Rs 120 crore as reparations. This is again an exception. The rule requires cancellation of the event besides the reparation costs. The sum could be a small pecuniary pinch for the organisers, but surely not a deterrence for future violators.
It only proves yet again how the environmental governance in the country largely works. If you have the clout, you can get a conditional permission and then flout the conditions brazenly. In the rare case that a court does notice the illegalities, pay a little fine, prepare an environmental damage mitigation plan that costs a bit more and carry on with your business.
Consider for a moment that the issue had not gone to court. Do you believe that the chief engineer of the DDA or his subordinate would have had the gall to cancel the permission at the last moment in case he or she found the setting up of temporary structures and holding the event was damaging the river bank? This is the same chief engineer who is marking his approval to the project all the way to the urban development minister’s office. Don’t forget the President of India and other political heavyweights from the party in power and the opposition were expected to attend the event. The President, of course, has now found he is unavailable for the event.
Who was to regulate the event, the land-owning agency, Delhi state pollution control board, the Delhi government’s environment department or the regional office of the Union environment ministry in charge of Delhi? Who is responsible for environmental governance in the city? The air pollution crisis in the capital has shown earlier that no one is and the only time government agencies work together is when the courts yoke them to do so.
In a city with a semblance of structured governance one could have imagined the DDA land on the river-side being used for temporary events under strict laid-down guidelines and regulations and permissions being given through a transparent process. Then the city and its people could have celebrated its river bank. Not just an exceptionally influential Vyakti Vikas Kendra.
After all, other cities celebrate and participate in even bigger congregations on river banks such as Kumbh melas periodically. Standard protocols have been developed to manage their environmental fallouts. Of course those events too could be organised and regulated better. But the point is, river banks in cities are urban commons. If discretion was not the rule, citizens would get to enjoy the river front and not just the exceptionally influential. The river bank and the city would both gain from it.