BEAMING DEFIANCE

An Indian guru’s gala has ruined a river but what rankles more is his arrogant denial

Quartz india
Quartz india

A few months ago, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was seen beaming arrogantly in the face of serious allegations.

In March, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had asked his Bengaluru-based Art of Living (AOL) Foundation to pay Rs5 crore upfront. The NGT—an environment protection body—had found that AOL‘s world cultural festival was likely to cause damages of up to Rs120 crore ($17 million) to River Yamuna’s floodplains.

Shankar, a guru for many Indian politicians and CEOs, remained defiant. “We have not done anything wrong. We will go to jail but not pay a penny,” the 59-year-old said.

He even made grandiose claims.

“We are asserting that we will turn the place into a beautiful biodiversity park once we are finished with it,” he told the media on March 8. It also helped that India’s prime minister Narendra Modi and Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal attended the event.

The festival, marking AOL’s 35th anniversary, was held over a massive 1,000-acre plot—almost twice the size of Monaco. Large structures were raised on the river banks and even the Indian Army was called in to build two floating bridges across the river. The stage, where performances and meditation sessions were held, was spread across seven acres.

Among others, participants at Ravi Shankar’s event included many of Narendra Modi’s senior cabinet members, media barons, businessmen, and politicians from around the world, including Pakistan, France and the US. “This is the Kumbh Mela of culture,” Modi said at the event.

Four months on, there is no sign of any biodiversity park in the area. Instead, a special NGT panel has submitted a scathing report that says that AOL has “completely destroyed, not simply destroyed” the floodplains.

“The ground is now totally levelled, compacted and hardened, totally devoid of water bodies or depressions, and almost completely devoid of any vegetation (except a few large cattails at the base of the DND flyover),” the report said.

“The floodplain has lost almost all of its natural vegetation—trees, shrubs, reeds, tall grasses, aquatic vegetation including water hyacinth,” it said. “Their total loss cannot be readily visualised and documented… Overall, the floodwater retention capacity of the area has been severely compromised,” the report said.

Shankar, though, lives in denial.

“I have said it several times that we have not damaged the land,” he said on Aug. 18. “We will fight it out with all we have done and gathered, scientific data and satellite maps, and leave it to the courts to take a decision. But we will not allow someone to treat us unfairly.”

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