By Sadiq Zafar
In the name of heritage and culture, the Art of Living (AOL), Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s renowned spiritual organization, held a supposedly spiritual gathering – World Culture Festival in March, 2016 – with the help of the current government of a democratic nation, on the fragile floodplain of river Yamuna in the National Capital Territory of Delhi. When the federal government of a welfare state funds an obtrusive event on an ecologically sensitive floodplain of one of the most polluted rivers of a struggling nation, then, as a student who has worked on the betterment of that floodplain, has some questions to ask to the authorities and to the custodians of the nation.
In the guise of promoting Indian heritage and culture, a stage of a privately organized event was erected on the fragile floodplain of river Yamuna, which was shared by the Prime Minister of the nation and the Chief Minister of Delhi along with some prominent faces in politics and society. This trend is alarming for a society.
While the National Green Tribunal (NGT) urged to ban any activity on the floodplain, the appeal was ignored by the government. After issuing many warnings and notices to the organizers, NGT’s voice seemed to be drowned out. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a saint on Twitter, refused to pay the penalty imposed on his organization, Art of Living.
The Development Authority in Delhi overlooked large scale unauthorized constructions on this ecologically sensitive floodplain of river Yamuna even after getting warnings from the NGT and from the environment and ecology experts. This event was a blatant violation of public norms made to facilitate the maintenance of ecology, safe-guarding the biodiversity and flora and fauna of the region. Use of the defense machinery, including the use of the Indian army personnel, deployed to carry out makeshift arrangements for the event and the building of a Pontoon bridge, should be seen as a bold contestation of public sentiment. Trees and vegetation were also damaged on a large scale to prepare the ground to accommodate a large mass of hallucinating population.
If the ministry of culture is believed that the event was meant to showcase and promote Indian heritage and culture, the questionable thing is the involvement of a welfare state and its machinery to facilitate a privately organized event. What was controversial was the participation of the custodians of the welfare state, in the name of culture.
The meandering course of river Yamuna has witnessed the history of human habitat, formation of civilizations, and the expansions and destructions of Delhi, with courage and strength. Maulana Azad had invoked river Yamuna in his historic speech on the steps of Jama Masjid in Delhi in 1947 during the partition of the nation, in which he tried to dissuade Muslim exodus from India to Pakistan. The river has borne the blood flowing through the drains of Delhi during the partition. Apart from pollution, politics, too, has turned the clear water of river Yamuna into a highly polluted, narrow stream. The river which served Delhi for thousands of years today faces an identity crisis and struggles to survive as a natural water body.
The ground condition states that Yamuna is one of the most polluted rivers in India, especially around New Delhi, as it flows through a high density population growth, rapid urbanization, and unchecked environmental pollution. The capital city discharges its treated, partially treated, and untreated waste into the river and accounts for around 70 percent of the total pollution in the whole stretch of the river. The irony is that Delhi contributes just 2% of the total stretch of river Yamuna.
The magnet of attraction, Delhi has a huge population sitting on the Ridge and the floodplain trying to survive. Blatant violations of environmental norms can be traced while studying the settlement pattern in Delhi and its floodplain. The floodplain has a history of encroachment in terms of illegal occupation of land under the use of defense forces, for religious and residential purposes. The exploitation of natural resources goes unanswered and overlooked most of the times in Delhi. Since urban land is an expensive commodity, the depletion of natural resources such as the Delhi Ridge and the floodplain has happened at a rapid pace.
The developments along the banks of river Yamuna raise concerns about the deleterious effects to the floodplains and the ecology around it. An earlier study of IPCC identifies Delhi as located in an area with high risk of flooding and climate change. Thus Delhi’s floodplain is a sensitive zone because of the vulnerability and threat it is facing.
The unauthorized constructions for Sri Sri’s Art of Living event on the floodplain should be seen as an encroachment. The common saying in an urban morphological setup – what is beyond your vision doesn’t exist – holds true for Yamuna. The leftovers of the event confirm that Yamuna is treated as a backyard in Delhi.
It should be noted that the destruction of vegetation can cause imbalance to the whole ecology of the region, harming the biodiversity. As part of the river restoration project, the Government of India came up with an action plan to clean the polluted river, including the stretch in Delhi. From the construction of sewage treatment plants (STPs) to the connection of sewers to the STPs, in order to prevent direct outfall of sewers into the river, Yamuna Action Plan (YAP) launched in phases had emphasized the critical importance of Delhi. The latest plan, which aims to turn the river bank as a biodiversity zone, awaits implementation. The timeline of the river rejuvenation program for Yamuna proves that after many attempts, action plans, demolition drives, and ample amounts of funds flown into the drains, the Development Authority in Delhi has failed to provide a road-map for the sustainable development of the river and its floodplain.
With crumbling and decaying sewage infrastructure, unchecked sewer outfalls and haphazard informal growth, violation of environmental norms and encroachment on the floodplain, Yamuna still struggles to find a place in the city’s imagination.
Sadiq Zafar completed his urban planning thesis on ‘Sustainable Development of the Yamuna Floodplain in Delhi’ at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Delhi.
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