Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Sree Sree No Go Free Free

Sri Sri No Go Free Free

Earlier this year, close to sixty hectares of the Yamuna floodplains were cleared of a flourishing ecosystem in favour of the World Culture Festival. The event is not only a thumping success, but also gets an endorsement from none other than our honorable Prime Minister. At a time when putting an axe to a tree on your own property could land you in jail for no less than 3 months and cost you up to Rs. 10,000 in fines, a certain Mr Ravi Shankar proceeds to have thousands of them felled (read migratory birds rendered homeless or dead) for his three-day extravaganza. This Mr. Ravi Shankar of the Art of Living, the giggling godman we’re discussing here, just coughed up – very reluctantly – a Rs. 40 million fine for breaking the law after flat-out refusing any ownership until now.

How did we get here? Is there more than meets the eye? How do you get to uproot the environment on such a colossal scale in a country where an inconspicuous felling of a tree next to your house doesn’t go unnoticed? Let’s try to deconstruct this mess.

How Did He Even Get the Clearance?

At the heart of the story is the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the governing body that green-lit the entire shindig. In Ravi Shankar’s defense, the event itself wasn’t illegal since a legitimate approval was already sought and secured beforehand. That means the buck stops at DDA, right? Well, if only. Some environmentalist was obviously not happy about the whole thing and decided to run it past the National Green Tribunal (NGT), the supreme governing body on all environment-related issues in the country – the green knights, if you will. Right off the bat, the NGT had the same question you and I have right now: How did DDA approve this event?

So they decided to have a little chat with folks from DDA and learned that the approval was granted because the event wouldn’t break any laws whatsoever. How come? Because the entire set was meant to be a 1. temporary structure, something existing laws don’t forbid. Besides, the permission was granted on a 2. twenty-odd hectare parcel which wouldn’t be a big enough impact on the overall ecological balance of the floodplains. And (last but not the least) 3. projected footfall. You see, people are bad for the environment. They mess with it, they destroy it, which is why the fewer, the better. That makes it imperative that an approving body entrusted with the environment take into account the number of people being expected to stampede the place in question. While seeking DDA’s nod, Mr. Ravi Shankar’s representative had assured a footfall of between three to four hundred thousand a day.

Fair enough, these look like reasonable parameters right? WRONG! When NGT had a team recon the venue, the site seemed a tad bigger than what it should be. Almost three times bigger! Now that’s not right, is it? Another anomaly NGT discovered was in the projected footfall. The submitted number seems a bit odd given all AoL advertisements have consistently boasted expecting at least ten times that in attendance. Now, I understand you cannot be too precise with data like that, especially when projecting, but a ten-fold difference between what you’re expecting and what you’re telling the authorities does sound a wee bit shady to us.

Another issue was around the verady to usy “temporary” nature of the event basis which the approval was secured from the DDA. The planned stage, touted to be the biggest of its kind in the world, would stand no less than a hundred feet high! NGT observed it would be impossible to erect a contraption of that size and scale without digging significantly deep and affecting the ground integrity of the area. So even if the structures would be “temporary” their impact on their surroundings wouldn’t.

The NGT had sufficient ground to move against Mr. Ravi Shankar’s little ‘soirée by the sacred stream’

Fait Accompli

Given the little game of Chinese whispers we just saw played between DDA and Ravi Shankar, it’s easy to see how the plot was missed. Again, as NGT discovered, that doesn’t sound like much of an excuse given DDA did once cancel the NOC they had issued to AoL. Why? Because they learned about the discrepancy on the footfall numbers well in time. That should sound like a good move finally. But alas, for no reason we can make any sense of, the NOC was granted again by the same DDA soon after. And if you’re wondering why, you’re not alone. NGT was too which is why they posed the question to DDA.

While the blame game played out between DDA, NGT, and AoL, something was already going down on the banks of the Yamuna and nobody noticed. The stage was being cleared for AoL’s anniversary bash (which is exactly what this event was all about) – down came the trees and up went the scaffoldings. Birds? Sorry folks, you may just do us all a favor and die. Thank you very much. Are you wondering why NGT didn’t step in to stop this destructive joyride of Ravi Shankar? The answer, in their own words, is fait accompli.

Fait accompli is a French expression that literally translates to ‘something that has already been done and cannot be reversed.’ Quite a handy little phrase, isn’t it? NGT observed that the preparations were already at too advanced a stage for any pause to have a positive impact on the environment. The damage had already been done. Irreversible damage. The best one could do now was clean up their act after the event and try, as far as possible, to restore the place to its previous state. That’s exactly what, in its infinite wisdom and prudence, NGT ordered Ravi Shankar to do. “Clean up after yourselves, do not make more of a mess, and leave the place as unharmed as possible. Oh, and also, pay a fine once you’re done. You didn’t think you were going to get off the hook with a mere reprimand, did you?” The fine amount was pegged at Rs. 50 million which was to be adjusted after a post-event final assessment of the actual damages to the region.

So the spectacle of Ravi Shankar’s vanity was back on track for everyone to bask in. And boy, was it a spectacle! Not sure if the sub-continent has ever seen a cultural gathering of that size ever before. People flocked from every corner of the world. In came the celebrities and the spotlights. From Narendra Modi to Arvind Kejriwal, the event saw political creatures of all shapes and sizes. Around 1,700 guys were enlisted for traffic management alone. That should give you an idea of the scale of this event. This was serious stuff.

At this point, given the fact that AoL did succeed in securing an NOC from DDA, it would be quite unfair if the latter were spared any consequences for their oversight. The NGT felt the same way which is why a fine of Rs. 500,000 was also imposed on DDA for not carrying out its statutory functions, i.e. carrying out pre or post approval site-inspections. How’s that for justice? Another Rs. 100,000 was also slapped on the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) for not having held the event organizers accountable for the proper management of solid and liquid waste before granting their nod.

The Ministries of Water Resources and of Environment and Forests were also pulled up at the court but let off with a slap on the wrist. The High Court agreed with NGT in that the event, despite being temporary in principle, would have a permanently damaging effect on the floodplains given its sheer scale and must have been treated as such. The court labeled Ravi Shankar’s theatrics an “ecological disaster.”

I’d Rather Go to Jail Than Pay the Fine

This is what Ravi Shankar had to say when the time for reckoning finally dawned upon him. The event took place as planned only because it was too late to reverse the damage now. But while greenlighting the whole thing, the NGT had imposed a fine on the organizers as punishment. This fine was initially pegged at an interim amount of Rs. 50 million. Later, however, it was corrected to a little over Rs. 40 million after post-event assessments were carried out.

This is the point where Ravi Shankar decides to turn the revolutionary and flat-out refuse to pay up. In his opinion, if anything, the event had left the Yamuna floodplains better off than before ecologically, experts on the subject be damned. Here’s a list of arguments his laughing lackeys have presented in his defense over time. This is where logic and integrity are sacrificed on the alter of maniacal fanaticism.

Argument #1: “The NGT should not have gotten involved since this was a temporary event and the Art of Living had secured all required permissions before moving ahead with the plans.”

That’s akin to saying your dad shouldn’t have punished you something for since your mum already gave you a free pass. And besides, as already stated above, the NGT already clarified to the court why this event could not be considered temporary de facto. How does being temporary matter if the rammifications of your actions are irreversibly permanent? As for the permissions having been secured beforehand, those permissions should stand null and void the moment it was proven that they had misrepresented their footfall numbers in the application process. Furthermore, the permissions were granted for only 20-odd hectares, not three times that area that you decided to encroach as if it always belonged to you.

Argument #2: “The NGT never imposed a fine; the 50 million being talked about is the amount that Ravi Shankar offered to pay the government as compensation to develop the neglected and polluted wasteland.”

Fines imposed by a court can hardly have any semantic ambiguity, definitely not on this scale. When a court imposes a fine on you, it’s a fine. Not charity, not a donation. It’s a straight-up penalty. And so far as “developing the wasteland” goes, a thriving ecosystem hardly counts as a wasteland, and uprooting it is not development. Even if it were (WHICH IT ISN’T), were you asked to? And besides, since your structure was temporary, wouldn’t said development also be temporary? As in, will be reversed when your little rave is over?

Argument #3: “The Yamuna floodplain has not been damaged as per experts, and awaiting elaborate testing, it actually seems to be in a much better condition than before The Art of Living took it upon itself to clean the area.”

What experts? The ones you hired to parrot out your rhetoric in your defense? Or the ones that were enlisted by the NGT under court supervision to do what they are supposed to do? You only cleaned up after yourselves because you were “asked to.” That was no charity. And speaking of cleaning up, not everything can be reversed – not the trees that were uprooted and the birds that were killed or rendered homeless. You can’t pollute a river and then “clean it up.” These damages are lasting. They are permanent.

Argument #4: “Many permanent structures have been allowed to be built on the Yamuna floodplain over the years, and neither activists nor NGT has protested or halted these constructions, making it all the more obvious that this whole issue was an attempt by certain groups to defame The Art of Living.”

This is a classic case of shifting the goalpost. How does someone else committing a crime legitimize yours? And besides, who cares about Art of Living enough to defame them? These guys, up till now (to those who vaguely knew of them) were a bunch of harmless eccentrics laughing their way through life. Most of the world lived (and continues to do so) in happy ignorance of their existence. To claim that there are motives to derail the laughter is ridiculous on so many levels.

Argument #5: “The fact that media even resorted to used cropped or outdated images in their reporting to intentionally paint a distorted picture of the event and The Art of Living also leaves one to wonder about the intentions and forces behind this style of reporting.”

Cropped or outdated images? Why is it that an image showing your destruction can be called doctored and ones showing a “clean” Yamuna can’t?

Moral of the Story

Finally reason prevailed and on June 6 this year, the godman succumbed to our country’s legal system, paying up the Rs. 47.5 million fine. Although his followers continue to trash the judgment, that hardly matters now. At the end of the day, justice prevailed and that’s a victory for not only us citizens but also for mother nature. Nobody, no matter how influential, should ever get to escape the consequences of their actions. Especially not when it comes to playing with a fragile biodiversity.

The moral of the story here is that while Ravi Shankar was mandated to clean up the festival site, the government has a much more crucial cleaning up of its own to do. This fiasco has brought to light a gaping hole in our system. The breakdown in communication between different governing bodies and public authorities is unacceptable. It is dangerous. The laxity with which approvals are granted without any thorough assessment or review is unacceptable. If we are to fight crime better, we have to be far more prudent than this. Had the DDA and DPCC been wise enough, this entire mess would have been avoided and Yamuna would have thanked us for having saved it from an irresponsible and reckless show of power.

1 comment: