I have nothing against Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. In fact, on a visit to Bengaluru I had the privilege to meet him and receive his blessings. I have nothing against the Art of Living (AoL) movement either. If it gives peace and fulfilment to the millions who practice it, it must be effective. However, I have everything against spiritual gurus who leverage their spiritual legitimacy for acts of omission and commission that appear to be directly against the larger public good.
In organising a mega-cultural festival on the banks of the Yamuna in Delhi over March 11-13, in spite of the vocal concerns of qualified environmentalists and the trenchant observations of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), Sri Sri Ravi Shankarji has, in my view, got embroiled in an avoidable controversy that will dent his spiritual credibility. And the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on this occasion is a matter of separate but equal concern.
It is important to remember that the NGT did not mince its words on what the grand cultural event would do to the flood plains of the Yamuna. In its order of March 10, 2016, the NGT said: “It is the consistent view of the experts and is sufficiently evident from the documents placed on record that the flood plains have been drastically tampered with while destroying the natural flow of the river, reeds, grasses and natural vegetation on the river bed. It has further disturbed the aquatic life of the river and destroyed water bodies and wet lands on the flood plains”.
For this damage caused to “the environment, ecology, biodiversity and aquatic life of the river,” the NGT held the Art of Living Foundation to be liable, and asked it to pay an “environmental compensation”, initially of `5 crore, “prior to the commencement of the event”. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s response to this notice opens up serious questions of propriety — as one would expect from a spiritual guru — and of legality.
He said that he would rather go to jail than pay the fine. Displaying a remarkable indifference to a duly constituted apex tribunal set up under the law of the land, he decided suo motu that he had not violated any rule and hence was not liable to pay any penalty. Given the imminence of the event, the NGT had no option but to accept his offer to pay only Rs 25 lakh prior to the event. The pointed question that begs an answer is whether spiritual gurus can become a law unto themselves?
In its order, the NGT highlighted another disturbing aspect of this case. It said that the AoL Foundation had not yet (that is, until one day before the event) obtained permission from the police department, fire department, the ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation and that “all these authorities have failed to exercise due diligence in fulfilment of their public duties”. It added, more damningly, that the information provided by the AoL was “incomplete, vague and uncertain since it did not provide any specific data, supporting documents, comprehensive plan with regard to carrying on of such a huge construction, levelling activity and also construction of other approach roads, pontoon bridges, ramps, parking and a huge stage measuring 40 feet high, 1,000 feet long and 200 feet wide to any of the authorities”.
Why did AoL behave in such a manner? It did so because of the hubris that affinity to power brings. After all, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is considered close to Mr Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Mr Modi was invited to the event, as was the President of India. The President did not go, but Mr Modi did. Was it appropriate for him to do so in the light of the observations of the NGT, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s open declaration that he will flout its orders, and the knowledge that necessary permissions under the law had not been obtained by the AoL?
There are two other aspects of importance. How was the Army deployed to assist in the making of bridges etc. for a private function? What kind of precedent is set by this kind of decision? Will the Army assist other private events, including those by Sikh, Christian, Muslim or other Hindu organisations? On the one hand this government constantly speaks of the valour and sacrifice of our armed forces and on the other hand it has no compunction in using scarce defence facilities for a private event, thereby actually comprising the resources available for the defence of the nation.
Secondly, Mr Modi spoke of this event as the “Kumbh mela of culture”, and emphasised the need to “take pride in our cultural legacy”. Are mega one-off events of this nature the way to revive our cultural legacy? Almost every major institution related to culture in our country is languishing and struggling for funds. The capital has no auditorium remotely close to world standards; our art galleries are moribund; there is an acute shortage of trained curators; the apex Akademies are mired in unproductive politics; our museums are in shambles; and state patronage at the grassroots for genuine work to nurture and revive our cultural legacy is far below what is needed.
The truth is that both Mr Modi and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar are prey to the malaise of “giganticism”, where the spectacle is more important than the substance.
Mr Modi’s imagination is full of glitzy bullet trains and massive industrial corridors, even if our normal train system is gasping to survive and the farmers whose lands are being acquired to build industrial corridors are committing suicide by the hundreds.
And Sri Sri Ravi Shankar believes that by creating a mega “cultural” event that may enter the Guinness World Records, even if it means fatal damage to an environmental ecosystem, he is putting India on the world stage of recognition.
Both of them are pursuing an illusion. Except that in both cases, their ambitions are being pursued at the cost of the real good of the country.