New Delhi: With the National Green Tribunal (NGT) posing tough questions to the Centre and raising some environmental concerns, the suspense over the fate of the Art of Living’s controversial “World Culture Festival” deepened on Tuesday amid speculation on whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi would inaugurate the three-day event that begins on Friday. President Pranab Mukherjee has already cancelled plans to attend Sunday’s valedictory session.
Rubbishing allegations of any ecological harm during the festival, Art of Living guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar said on Tuesday that a “biodiversity park” would be build in that area, reiterating that not a single tree had been cut in the preparations.
“Villagers said their buffaloes never went near the water in the past. Now I have been informed that those buffaloes have entered the water. The villagers are very happy,” the spiritual guru said, adding: “In the past, our volunteers brought out 512 tonnes of garbage from the Yamuna. We want a clean Yamuna and we care about the environment.”
The NGT, that is hearing a petition seeking a ban on the extravagant event to mark the 35th anniversary of the foundation, will pronounce its order Wednesday. In a separate development, in the wake of fresh terror threats, the home ministry directed the Delhi police to take all possible steps to ensure peace during the event and to make sure no stampede-like situation arises. The Art of Living Foundation said that due to security issues, the National Security Guards had taken over the venue.
The NGT bench, headed by its chief Swantanter Kumar, asked the environment ministry to submit an affidavit on why no environmental clearance was required for erecting structures on the Yamuna flood plains for the event even as stakeholders passed the buck to each other during the court hearing on Tuesday.
The NGT also raised questions over the building of a pontoon bridge by the Army on the river. The green body has sought a response from the environment and forests ministry after its counsel said they found no debris at the site when an expert team visited, and that the environment impact assessment notification of 2006 did not mandate any environment clearance for temporary structures.
The bench reprimanded the Delhi Development Authority for giving permission to set up a pontoon bridge. Defence sources said the Army was asked to construct the pontoon bridge to prevent any possible stampede at the event.
Passing the buck to each other, the Delhi government, DDA and the environment ministry said that they have no relation with the grant of permission for setting up the bridge as they were handling different issues. While the DDA defended itself by saying it was required only to give a “no objection” certificate for the bridge, the Delhi government submitted that its role comes only at the time of flood while the MoEF put the onus on the ministry of water resources.
Advocate Rajiv Bansal, appearing for the DDA, backed the authority’s decision to grant permission for the event saying it has given the clearance with the condition that no permanent construction would be built without permission from the competent authority. Art of Living, on the other hand, reaffirmed that it had taken the requisite permissions except from the police, which is subject to permission from the fire department, and that they had fulfilled all the conditions.
To the DDA’s submission that no debris or municipal waste was being dumped on the Yamuna flood plains, the green body observed that photographs suggest otherwise and the DDA cannot wash its hands off.
The bench also questioned the Uttar Pradesh government approval to allot the parking area and asked if it falls in the flood plains area, to which its counsel replied: “The permission was granted as per the notification in which the flood plains could be allotted for parking purposes during non-monsoon season so that there is no damage to the environment and no permanent structures could be constructed.” The bench asked counsel whether thousands of cars making emissions would not cause pollution to the environment.
The Delhi government is likely to deny permission to park thousands of vehicles at Millennium Park DTC Bus Depot as the organisers have requested, on the grounds that the bus depot matter is already pending in the Supreme Court.
On whether an environment impact assessment study was done, the Art of Living said it had no such instructions, arguing that no concretisation was done, no permanent structure built and that only wood, clothes and bamboo were being used at the site.
The bench also raised concerns on how trucks and buses would ply on the pontoon bridge without a ramp and on concretisation, to which the DDA said that “it would only be used by people on foot”.
Advocate Tarunvir Singh Khehar, appearing for the Delhi government, said by a notification of 2014, it can provide permission for setting up of a pontoon bridge only in the eventuality of floods, while for all other times the ministry of water resources would give the necessary clearance. He also said the disaster management authority had granted permission to the event only conditionally, and that no permission was granted by the police and fire department.
The function expected to be attended by a crowd of about 3.5 million to five million people. A series of petitions have been filed demanding its cancellation due to concern over the potential permanent damage to the riverbed.
Environmental activist Anand Arya, who filed a petition to stop the event, rued that over 1,000 acres of the sensitive area between Delhi and Noida, predominantly marshland, were shorn of even a “single blade” of grass. He also said that not only its natural “undulating” terrain had been “levelled”, pesticides had been sprayed on the flood plain to kill mosquitoes which had adversely affected the lives of a variety of birds, insects and reptiles....