President Pranab Mukherjee on Monday decided against participating in the World Culture Festival, an event to be hosted by spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living Foundation that finds itself tangled in multiple controversies.
Rashtrapati Bhavan has confirmed that Mukherjee would not be attending the weekend event, to be held on the Yamuna's floodplains, where he was to be the chief guest on March 13, its third and last day. No reason was cited. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to be the chief guest at the inaugural on Friday evening. A media advisory issued on Monday does not indicate any change in his plans.
The event is entangled in three controversies:
♦ Violation of a January 2015 National Green Tribunal order barring constructions on the ecologically sensitive Yamuna floodplains;
♦ Engaging the army to build pontoon bridges for access to the festival site from the main roads;
♦ Mowing the standing crops of small farmers to clear the area.
The army built a pontoon bridge after first flagging the decision as “not desirable”. The festival organisers had earlier requested the government to ask the army to build five bridges. After the army said it should not be associated with a private event, the force was instructed to do what it could to help the organisers in the “public interest”. “We were given orders; we carried them out,” army sources said, implying there was a political directive.
The army had also pointed out that its engineering corps laid bridges mostly in operational areas under its northern and eastern commands. They said it would, however, be feasible to organise one bridge close to Delhi. A company of engineers has built the “replacement bridge”, capable of bearing a load of 70 tonnes (intended for tanks to cross). Such bridges are part of the army's arsenal for military operations in support of assaulting parties.
The bridging engineers train to lay one such bridge, usually spanning 60 to 70 metres, in 210 minutes in operational conditions (maybe under fire). Irrespective of the propriety of deploying its bridging company for a private event, the army is taking the task as a training exercise. Such exercises require the bridging engineers to go to distant water bodies, such as the Indira Gandhi Canal in Rajasthan, to train. The bridge-laying companies of the engineering corps are required to practise the drill at least once a year.
PTI has reported that the army is likely to build one more bridge to ease the movement of the festival-bound crowd after Delhi police handed in a report apprehending a stampede given the numbers expected to turn up. The organisers had multiplied by several times their initial estimation of the size of the crowd, according to submissions by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) before the National Green Tribunal, where the Art of Living Foundation is contesting a petition moved by the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan, a citizens' movement to save the river.
The petitioner's contention is that the event not only violates the tribunal's own order but also conditions specified by the DDA. A committee set up by the tribunal found that “since extensive and severe damage has already happened, simple stoppage of the activity and removal of all that has been done at this juncture may not serve much purpose”.
For the restoration of just the western side of the floodplains, the committee has proposed a penalty of Rs 100-120 crores on the foundation. The DDA had first refused permission but reversed its decision 15 days later. The DDA told the tribunal that it had been given to understand that there would be a gathering of two to three lakh people.
But the festival, which marks the 35th anniversary of the foundation, is expected to draw 35 lakh people from 155 countries, according to a statement on the foundation's website. The final hearing at the tribunal begins tomorrow. Some farmers from the floodplains have moved a petition in the district court protesting the mowing of their crop.
Dalit farmer Heera Lal said the foundation had offered Rs 4,000 per bigha with a “take it or leave it”. He added: “Some farm labourers were forced to take some money and their pictures taken as proof of compensation.” The farmers plan to approach the tribunal too as two trees have now been uprooted.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar told a TV channel that the tribunal report was “biased” and that the foundation should be rewarded for undertaking an exercise aimed at generating awareness for an eco-friendly system. Manoj Misra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan said: “He is now trying to justify and find merit in an illegal activity.” He added: “Remember, the Delhi Master Plan was changed to let the Swaminarayan Temple come up on the Yamuna's banks during the NDA's previous term.”