Art of Living fest opens

New Delhi, March 11

A massive cultural festival opened today on the banks of the Yamuna River in the Indian capital despite concerns that the sprawling construction of roads, ramps and pontoon bridges would irreparably damage the floodplains of the river. The country’s top environmental watchdog had fined the organisers 50 million rupees ($740,000) for building on the riverbanks, but the tribunal said it was too late to call off the event, organised by a group headed by a Hindu spiritual leader.

The Art of Living Foundation told the tribunal today it would pay 2.5 million rupees ($37,900) immediately and the remainder over the next three weeks.

Founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar had said earlier he would appeal the tribunal’s order. “We have done nothing wrong. I will go to jail but not pay the fine,” he told reporters, adding that his group would clean the riverbanks and leave no debris after the festival.

In a separate order last year the National Green Tribunal had said that no construction should be allowed in the floodplains of the Yamuna River. The festival celebrating the Art of Living Foundation’s 35th anniversary is expected to draw some 3.5 million visitors to see thousands of performers, and the arrangements are elaborate. From one bridge over the Yamuna, the festival resembles a small township spread over 1,000 acres, with tents as far as the eye can see. The main stage alone covers more than seven acres.

Several environmentalists had petitioned the National Green Tribunal over the potential environmental damage and alleged the group didn’t have all the permits and safety certificates required for the scale of its work. The foundation denies that and says it has obtained permission for all the construction involved.

Farmers also complained that they have been pushed off their land. “We feel so bad that they are doing this programme on farmers’ lands. What if we bulldoze baba’s house or his park?” Rekha, a farmer who goes by one name, said, talking about Shankar.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to inaugurate the festival today. The event is also expected to create traffic snarls over weekend and traffic advisories have been issued warning people to avoid roads leading to or running close to the venue.