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The Big Picture – World Culture Festival: NGT order, defiance, outcome

The Big Picture – World Culture Festival: NGT order, defiance, outcome


After a high drama the decks were finally cleared by the NGT for the three-day World Cultural recently. The Festival was inaugurated by the Prime Minister and was held on the banks of Yamuna right in the heart of the capital city. The controversial event, more so the venue, was almost cancelled based on a petition. However, after having found that the event is causing some damage to the environment and ecology, the NGT imposed a fine of Rs. 5 crore on the organizers of the event and gave a go-ahead signal. However, this fine is substantially less than the 120-crore fine earlier recommended by a committee appointed by the NGT to assess the environmental damage on the Yamuna flood plains. The NGT, also, reprimanded both the Centre and the Art of Living Foundation for environmental violations. It also imposed fines of 5 lakh on the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) and 1 lakh on the Delhi Pollution Control Committee for failing in their duty.

The Tribunal also pulled up the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change for declaring that no environmental clearance was needed, which is contrary to official notifications. The whole event raises two central issues that need to be carefully addressed. The first relates to the “ecological, environmental and biodiversity damage done to the river and flood plains” in holding such a cultural extravaganza. The second is about the propriety of the use of Army troops and equipment to level the flood plains and build pontoon bridges for what is, ultimately, a private event. Even, many of the farmers are upset with the festival. They have also complained about the compensation offered.

Besides, many environmentalists are not happy with the NGT’s order since, if the potential damage is as great as it is being made out, surely a Rs 5 crore fine isn’t going to make things okay. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) allowed the event to take place on the ground that it was approached too late to cancel. The NGT order also highlights the absence of clarity about the process of obtaining clearances for activities of this kind.

It is being said that the Central and Delhi governments have, in a display of extraordinary non-application of mind, allowed a private entity to take over part of the Yamuna floodplain, an area with well-known ecological vulnerabilities, for a ‘show’. The low priority accorded in recent times to environmental impacts of official decisions is manifest here: large parts of the biodiversity-rich floodplain have been irresponsibly levelled, provision made for approach roads and vehicle parking, and a massive, 40-foot-high stage with garish symbols built for the event.

This has set a bad precedent. The Yamuna is a major resource for Delhi, and there is a great deal of scientific literature on why it should be protected and rejuvenated for the benefit of the national capital region. Studies done on Delhi’s water needs indicate that there are twice as many people living in the city than it can support based on carrying capacity norms. The imperative therefore should be to help the Yamuna use its full potential of recharging its aquifers using monsoon flood flows across a generous one-kilometre width, bringing more precious water to Delhi.

The NGT has rightly ordered an exhaustive review by a special committee of the damage caused to the river and its floodplain. The only option for the Foundation should be to meet the full cost of scientific restoration, consistent with the polluter-pays principle. Having claimed the participation millions of people from 155 countries, it should not be difficult for the organisers to mobilise the funds needed to restore the ecology of an invaluable part of the country’s natural heritage.