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'Make sure the truth is on your side'

By Syed Firdaus Ashraf
Last updated on: April 27, 2017 13:39 IST

'The size or economic potential of no event can be a valid excuse to break the law of the land.'

IMAGE: Army soldiers paint railings on a pontoon bridge laid in the waters of the Yamuna river to reach the venue of the World Culture Festival on the banks of the river in New Delhi. Photograph: Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

"Make sure the truth is on your side," says environmental activist Manoj Mishra who went up against Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and his organisation, Art of Living, in a bid to protect the Yamuna river.

Mishra, convenor of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, an organisation that helps to preserve and protect the river and its floodplain, filed a petition in February 2016 against Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's World Cultural Festival, which was scheduled to be held on the banks of the river on March 11 to 13 that year.

The culmination came on April 18, 2017, when the National Green Tribunal reprimanded Sri Sri Ravi Shankar for his 'irresponsible' remarks.

In an e-mail interview, Mishra tells's Syed Firdaus Ashraf about the plight of the Yamuna and his tussle with Art of Living.

NGT Chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar has said that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has 'no sense of responsibility'. Do you agree with his views?

No comments.

How serious is the environmental damage to the Yamuna because of this event and how long do you think it will take to recover from the damage?

This issue has already been settled by the report of the NGT-appointed seven-member expert committee. Please peruse the report.

Do you think compensation of Rs 42 crore, recommended by a 7-member expert committee, is enough to restore the Yamuna?

No comments.

When did you first come to know of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's plan to organise the World Cultural Festival on the banks of the Yamuna?

I first came to know that an event was being held in early December 2015.

What action did you want the administration to take against the event? Cancel it, or impose conditions?

We immediately wrote to the honourable lieutenant governor of Delhi (Najeeb Jung) to not permit any such event.

If the administration gave a thumbs-up to the event, it would be a direct contradiction of the National Green Tribunal's January 13, 2015 judgment.

What was the response to your complaint?

We received no response. However, at a later date it was learnt during the case hearing that our letter had been forwarded to Art of Living for its information.

IMAGE: The World Culture Festival. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

What made you file the petition?

The fact that despite clear directions from the NGT prohibiting any construction activity or dumping of any material in the Yamuna floodplain, large-scale clearing, levelling and dumping of debris and construction activity was taking place there.

Did you ever approach Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to request him not to hold the event as it would endanger the Yamuna?

Yes. Thrice (twice in January and once in February 2016) we requested the chief of Art of Living to desist from their plans to hold the event in the river floodplain.

To hold such a huge event Sri Sri Ravi Shankar must have obtained a clearance from the environment ministry and the Delhi Development Authority. How come they gave permission for it?

When we filed the petition on February 8, 2016, there was no information of any such permissions taken in the public domain.

How the institutions gave permissions, if any, is for them to respond.

Do you feel that the central government ministers, including the prime minister, may have been unaware of the magnitude of damage the event could cause to the Yamuna?

No comments. This is a hypothetical question.

Why do you feel that despite your intervention, the event could not be cancelled?

Again, how can we have an answer to this question?

When you approached the NGT with your petition against the Art of Living event, what was its reaction?

The petition was admitted and notices were given.

Didn't you feel a sense of pride that this mega event was being held in India?
More than 3.5 million people were coming from abroad to attend the event.

Pride? It was a purely private celebratory event, no matter its size or potential.

And the size or economic potential of no event can be a valid excuse to break the law of the land or prohibitory directions issued by a court of law.

IMAGE: Manoj Mishra, convenor, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan. Photograph: Kind courtesy Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan/Facebook

Is it not true that the Yamuna was neglected? It is not as if the river was in pristine condition which was ruined by this event.
It was in a poor condition even before the Art of Living event. So why single AoL out?
Wasn't the damage already done by an insensitive, unresponsive, administration?

The honourable NGT after a prolonged hearing spread over three years had delivered on January 13, 2015, a 98-page judgment which set a clear comprehensive road map for the rejuvenation of the river Yamuna.

The road map included the manner in which the floodplain of the river in the city should be restored.

The offending act by violating the said judgment not only made a mockery of the efforts of the NGT, but also put back the whole effort back by years.

So to now, on hindsight, for anyone to claim that what happened was immaterial in light of an already battered river Yamuna is a lame excuse to say the least.

In retrospect, how do you feel this event could have been handled better?

No comments. This is not for us to introspect. We did all that we thought was necessary in the matter.

That is to first approach the executive, then the honourable chief of the AoL and then finally the court.

When the NGT ordered Rs 5 crore as an interim fine to be paid by Art of Living, were you happy with the decision? Did AoL pay up that fine?

To the best of our best knowledge, the said amount has been paid. There is nothing to be happy or sad about this fact.

With AoL digging in its heels and refusing to own up, how do you see this matter playing out?
Will you succeed in bringing it to book?

The case continues to be adjudicated at the honourable NGT. The next date of hearing is May 9, 2017.

Are you a member of any political organisation, or aligned with one of them?

No. Never.

Finally, what lessons must the common man learn from you while taking on powerful personalities?

Make sure the truth is on your side.

Syed Firdaus Ashraf /