Even as the controversy around it refuses to die down, Art of Living (AOL) was given permission to organise the World Culture Festival by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on Wednesday.
The bench refused to stay the event "at this stage" citing time constraint. The NGT declined to issue a prohibitory order, though it observed that the information provided by AOL to authorities was "incomplete, vague and uncertain". The NGT also imposed an "environmental compensation" of Rs 5 crore on AOL. It said a final amount would be decided by a court-appointed 'Principal Committee'.
A scientific panel that NGT had constituted has already recommended a fine of `120 crore on AOL to restore the venue site on Yamuna floodplain to its original condition. Natural vegetation, marshland with reed beds, ecology and flora and fauna of the river has been disturbed, the panel report stated.
The bench, headed by Justice Swatanter Kumar, said AOL did not provide specific data that it would carry out such huge construction.
Safety concerns were raised primarily by the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) which conveyed to the Delhi Police that the main dais was structurally unsafe. In a letter dated March 9 to DCP (PM security), Special Director General (CPWD) Upendra Malik pointed out that 'corroded' and 'worn out' pipes have been used to construct the stage. The letter highlighted more loopholes: "The system is further compromised by 'no ground preparation for creating leveled and firm ground for supporting structure', 'inadequate size of base plates resulting in excessive soil bearing pressure' and 'non-staggering of splice joints creating weak links at some level in vertical members'.
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to pay a visit, these concerns assume greater significance. Nearly 35 lakh people may visit the venue over three days starting Friday. The Special Protection Group (SPG) too has raised doubts over preparations and safety of the stage like the pontoon bridge. The Delhi Police has raised concerns of a stampede and unmanageable chaos unless the shortcomings are addressed immediately.
On March 1, a police team had inspected the venue of the event and found certain shortcomings, especially with the stage where the Prime Minister and other VVIPs are to be seated, said a police source. The stage for VVIPs did not have the mandatory structural certificate. The police communicated the matter to the Ministry of Urban Development.
In the wake of security concerns, a separate stage is now being built for the Prime Minister. During the court proceedings, the counsel for Art of Living, Saraswati Aksham Nath, sought to reject security concerns. She said: "It is true that a parallel stage is being erected for dignitaries, but it's solely for their convenience. Our only aim is to conduct the event smoothly, with as little hassle to our VVIPs as possible. There is no safety issue involved."
MAIL TODAY tried to contact AOL for its response on security concerns but got no reply. Repeated phone calls and messages went unanswered. Earlier in the day, when MAIL TODAY visited the venue, Art of Living spokesperson Dinesh Ghodke said they were in constant touch with authorities to ensure security. "Apart from police personnel, our volunteers will ensure there is no chaos. We are discussing the matter with concerned authorities," Ghodke told MAIL TODAY.
Sources said PM Modi, who was expected to inaugurate the event on March 11, is yet to take a call on the matter. President Pranab Mukherjee, who was to deliver the valedictory speech, has already decided to give it a miss.
The 'World Culture Festival' from March 11-13 is being held by Sri Sri Ravishankar's NGO, Art of Living, to celebrate 35 years of "humanitarian service", on the western bank of Yamuna. The World Culture Festival website says a crowd of 3.5 million (35 lakh) is expected.
Meanwhile, AOL said it would challenge the NGT order in Supreme Court. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar also tweeted that AOL was not satisfied with the NGT verdict and would appeal against it.
In its judgement on Wednesday, the NGT bench, headed by Chairperson, Justice Swatanter Kumar, said: "For the reason of delay on the part of the petitioner (Manoj Misra) in approaching the tribunal and for the reason of fait accompli capable of restoration and restitution, we are unable to grant the prayer of prohibitory order…at this stage."
The court also fined the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) Rs 5 lakh and the Delhi Pollution Control Committee Rs. 1 lakh, saying, "All authorities have abdicated their responsibility…only passing the buck…They have failed to exercise due diligence in fulfillment of their public duties."
Petitioner Manoj Misra said: "The NGT bench has thought it out well. Everyone, in this case, has faulted. There is a moral, ethical and financial question involved. It is time of introspection for us. Is it right to kill a river, revered in our holy books and essential to this city, like this?"