How the guru of India’s rich and famous lost his peace on the banks of Yamuna

Not so green.
Not so green.
Image: EPA/Antonio Lacerda
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This post has been updated.

It was meant to be a massive celebration of the work Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and his Art of Living Foundation have done over the years.

Instead, the World Culture Festival is turning out to be a public relations nightmare for one of India’s best-known spiritual gurus.

Two days before the 59-year-old spiritual leader was to inaugurate the event, India’s National Green Tribunal (NGT)—a special body for environmental protection—is deliberating a proposal to cancel the event and charge the Art of Living Foundation with a Rs120 crore ($17 million) fine.

There is more trouble with the Delhi government—under whose jurisdiction the event falls—informing the NGT that the event doesn’t have police and fire department clearances. And, if all that wasn’t enough, the organisers have been under fire for having used the Indian Army to build pontoon bridges for the event.

Update: On March 9, the tribunal gave a go-ahead to the event, while imposing a fine of Rs5 crore ($744,000) to be paid by the Art of Living Foundation before the show’s inauguration. However, the final compensation amount will be decided based on a four-week-long study by an NGT-appointed committee. The committee will look into the actual cost of the restoration of the floodplains.

Shankar took to Twitter to express his dissatisfaction with the tribunal’s decision. He said the foundation would appeal against it.

The festival, which marks the Art of Living Foundation’s 35th anniversary, has been organised over a massive 1,000-acre plot—almost twice the size of Monaco—on the banks of River Yamuna in New Delhi. It claims to be the “biggest-ever festival of music and dance,” with a 40-feet platform, which is being hailed as the world’s largest stage.

The three-day gala is expected to draw over 3.5 million attendees from 155 countries. Among others, participants will include Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and many of his senior cabinet members, media barons, businessmen, and politicians from around the world, including Pakistan, France and the US.

But even such a high-power guest list may not save Shankar from ignominy.

The trouble

The spiritual guru’s troubles began after environmentalist Manoj Mishra filed a complaint against the event to the NGT last month. He alleged that the event is an ecological threat to Yamuna’s ecosystem due to several temporary constructions, such as tents, parking lots, dirt tracks, and the humongous stage, being built along the river.

Soon the NGT recommended a hefty fine of Rs120 crore on the charitable organisation.

“The organisers must restrict the area to bare minimum and submit a revised plan through a court affidavit in a day or two,” a report submitted by a scientific panel to the NGT said. “A site map must be produced stating all details. We are strongly of the view that this amount (Rs100-120 crore) should be collected from the Art of Living Foundation before the event, and kept in a separate account monitored by the honourable NGT.”

The NGT report soon brought the event under public scrutiny. Soon after, India’s president, Pranab Mukherjee, decided to opt out of the festival’s valedictory ceremony. Now, reports say even Modi is unlikely to grace the event.

Calling the Indian Army

Yet, Shankar’s dream event seems to have the firm backing of the Modi administration.

On March 7, the Indian Army sent in more than 120 soldiers to build floating bridges over the Yamuna, after the Delhi police cautioned against stampedes. It is unlikely that the army would charge a fee for its services.

India’s defence minister Manohar Parrikar has justified the action, saying the decision was taken to “avoid accidents.” But that hasn’t stopped many from questioning why the soldiers have been deployed to help in a private event.

Shankar, meanwhile, has been defiant. He even questioned the veracity of the NGT recommendations.

“We are asserting that we will turn the place into a beautiful biodiversity park once we are finished with it,” Shankar told the media on March 8. “Since 2010, our volunteers have been working hard to clean the river and around 512 tonnes of dirt and garbage has been fished out. We want to save the Yamuna. We have not cut a single tree and have maintained ecological stability. We want to see Yamuna transformed into a beauty again.”

But the large-scale building activity is evident. According to a report by environmentalist Vimlendu Jha in,

Our team witnessed hundreds of land movers and cranes levelling the floodplains and filling small water-bodies around the site. Most of the trees have been removed. This area was known for being an active breeding ground for hundreds of rare bird species, but with the trees gone, all of it has been destroyed for this mega culture festival. Culture, it would seem, is the new vulture.

The Art of Living Foundation is yet to respond to an emailed questionnaire from Quartz.

What is The Art of Living?

The Bengaluru-based Art of Living Foundation teaches yoga and meditation to “eliminate stress and foster a sense of well-being.”

After it was founded by Shankar in 1982, the organisation has expanded to over 152 countries, and claims to have “touched the life of over 370 million people.” Alongside, the spiritual guru has a fledgeling FMCG business, which sells Ayurvedic medicines, weight-loss tablets, and personal care products. The group’s other business interests include educational institutions and hospitals.

In India, Shankar also has the staunch backing of the rich and powerful alike. Modi is said to be close to the spiritual leader. Last year, the prime minister even tweeted that his conversations with Shankar are “always insightful.” Much before that, in the run-up to the Indian elections of 2014, the Congress party had criticised Shankar for allegedly asking his followers to throw their weight behind Modi, a claim that the former has dismissed.

His other followers include some of India’s most prominent businessmen, such as Venugopal Dhoot, chairman of Videocon, Yash Birla, chairman of the Yash Birla group and Vijay Mallya, the disgraced former head of United Spirits.