New Delhi: While controversy continues to plague the Art of Living’s “World Culture Festival” as its founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar sounded defiant on Thursday, saying he would rather go to jail than pay the Rs 5-crore fine imposed by the National Green Tribunal, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is all set to attend the cultural extravaganza starting Friday on the Yamuna flood plains. President Pranab Mukherjee had earlier cancelled plans to attend the valedictory session on Sunday. The NGT bench, headed by its chief Swatantar Kumar, sternly asked Art of Living Foundation to deposit the penalty by Friday, “failing which the law will take its own course”.
In a separate development, Zimbabwe’s state-controlled ZBC TV confirmed that President Robert Mugabe, who was to be one of the guests of honour, has called off his engagement at the festival.
The Supreme Court refused to entertain a plea seeking its direction to stop the three-day mega-event as a bench headed by Chief Justice T.S. Thakur asked the petitioner, Bhartiya Kishan Majdoor Samiti, to approach the NGT.
Defending the festival, Union urban development minister M. Venkaiah Naidu said the event was being opposed as it was “Hindu” and “Bharatiya”.
The AOL has drawn a lot of criticism over the possible environmental damage the event, likely to be attended by over 3.5 million people, will cause to the Yamuna. On Wednesday the NGT imposed a fine of Rs 5 crores on AOL for violating several environmental norms, and penalised and reprimanded the Delhi Development Authority and the Delhi Pollution Control Board for “not applying their mind” and “failing to perform their functions”.
“We have not done anything wrong. We have been taintless and will remain so. We are law-abiding citizens. We will go to jail but not pay a penny,” said spiritual guru Ravi Shankar on Thursday, reiterating: “Not a single tree has been felled, and just four have been pruned.” He said: “It was unreasonable to ask to shift the venue just two weeks before the event.”
Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal said his government would have suggested some “environmentally suitable” venue for the gala event had AOL approached it earlier.
The Delhi police, which has been monitoring the security situation at the venue closely, prepared a fresh status report under the supervision of special commissioner (law and order) Deepak Mishra and decided to heighten its deployment to around 6,000 personnel by roping in all 11 police districts and several specialised units.
Red-flagging some shortcomings, the Delhi police said a lack of direction boards, no fencing on the path leading to the venue, especially from Gates 10 and 11, which are to be open to the public, and inadequate CCTV cameras were some shortcomings listed in the status report.
Special commissioner of police (traffic) Muktesh Chander, who is charting out the traffic plan for the event, also visited the venue on Thursday to take stock of the arrangements and advised people to take public transport while avoiding the Noida Link Road, NH-24 and the Ring Road stretch from the point of intersection with Bhairon Marg till the mouth of the DND Flyway.
This comes a day after the green tribunal had expressed helplessness over banning the event because of “fait accompli”.
“They still have time till tomorrow to deposit Rs 5 crores fine as environment compensation in compliance with the directions of the tribunal,” NGT chairman Swatantar Kumar said Thursday on an application which said AOL had not paid the amount, adding: “If there is any breach of any condition, the matter will be taken up as and when required and the law will take its own course.” The NGT also refused to hold an urgent hearing on a fresh plea seeking a stay on the event, stating: “There is no urgency in it.”
The petitioner, environmentalist Manoj Mishra, is likely to move court with a plea of contempt against AOL for not paying the fine on Wednesday. He approached the NGT on Thursday complaining AOL has not taken permissions from agencies like the police, fire brigade and CPWD.
Dismissing reports that the culture ministry had given Rs 2.25 crores to AOL for the event, Union minister Mahesh Sharma clarified that the government has not extended any financial support for the event but Rs 2.25 crores was given to the Art of Living Foundation as part of “routine” grants to organisations promoting art and culture.
Swaraj Abhiyan leader Prashant Bhushan attacked the Centre and the Delhi government, accusing them of “violating” rules and “destroying” the environment by allowing the event. “Modi & Kejriwal govts come together to violate every rule & destroy Env to sponsor SriSri Circus. Both Supremos also agreed not to allow Lokpal! Violation of all Env rules, no fire clearance & corroded pipes used for stage. Will Modi/AK be held liable for disaster?(sic)” Mr Bhushan tweeted....