AOL case indicates our limited interest in environment

So now, the Art of Living founder, Ravi Shankar, has paid up the Rs 4.25 crores he was asked to pay in March, for the damage done to the Yamuna floodplains. He’s paid it three months later than he should have, after a severe public drubbing in full international view, covered by the global media.

Despite taking his time, he is not under arrest or out on bail. His passport was not been taken away, as one might expect would happen to a prominent debtor to the state. Indeed, his followers across the world continued to be part of the government-encouraged International Yoga Day as if they were not defaulters. If not this, then what else is privilege?

Damaging the riverbed

It’s not that the Art of Living didn’t try to avoid the payment. Shankar was initially outraged, saying he would rather go to jail than pay a fine. Now, the Art of Living says it will contest the payment in the Supreme Court.

A key issue of contention continues to be the extent of the ecological damage the World Cultural Festival has caused to the Yamuna riverbed.

In my opinion, shared by other environmentalists and scientists, the pollution is not the core issue, the damage is. The two are different. Perhaps the Yamuna is not full of toxic chemicals after the festival (though I am sure it got a shock-load of ammonia and fecal coliform since the toilets I saw on site could hardly have handled three-and-a-half-lakh people, about 10% of what the Art of Living originally projected).

But damage there was. The riverbed is rich in reeds; they were removed. The many tiny pits and mini-ponds were filled up, and the soft, spongy ground flattened and hardened.

In other words, the riverbed quality of the riverbed was finished.

The Art of Living function severely littered the area too, and there is ample photographic evidence of this. But no one fined them for littering since the riverbed did not come under any municipality’s jurisdiction.

The painted elephants and golden stage are very likely to have had colours with heavy metals, which typically leach into the ground, or, if freshly painted, leave a fine aerosol around them. None of this has been assessed as yet by the expert committee appointed by the National Green Tribunal.

Meanwhile, a few strong rain showers have already damaged much evidence. At a press conference, representatives of the Art of Living claimed that some birds had returned to the site. Sure, some common birds have returned, but those are the same ones you see in filthy areas all along the drive to the Taj Mahal. But that they returned – that is, they went away and came back – is the point. Whether the area recovers and how fast it does so is irrelevant. That it suffered damage is what matters. You cannot cut down a patch in a forest and then point out, a few years later, that is has recovered, as evidence of your non-liability.

The Art of Living also claimed that its party was held on a site that was not a protected area. What does that even mean in a country where over 35% of the tiger population we are so desperately trying to protect, lives outside a protected area? And is there even a shred of legitimacy in pillaging a riverbed, or any ecosystem, just because of a legal label? Is it not our constitutional duty to protect the environment?

Idea of the environment

Looking back at how events have unrolled, the case of Shankar and his colleagues at the Art of Living points out how a transactional, legally interpreted relationship with the environment always fails to protect it. This dramatic case has also pointed out how narrow our own construct of the environment is.

The case being made for a bio-diversity park is instructive in the manner in which an ecologically fragile and important area is being tamed into being a tangible thing rather than a patch of out-of-control wilderness.

This act of violence also revealed how most urban Indians visualise the environment.

Reeds, messiness and bushes are not part of the green imagination. Instead, lush parks, tall trees and forests populate many million minds.

Recently, Uma Bharti, Minister for Water Resources, heaped praise on the Art of Living for restoring the Yamuna floodplains. That a minister would see a riverine ecosystem thus, and even propose a public park in the area, is telling enough about how poorly we have learned to appreciate the wilderness.

The Art of Living should have to pay for what it has done to the commons. It has already paid with its name and reputation, but this is not enough in law – we must ensure hard cash is paid up to undo the damage.

The banks of the Yamuna should be restored – not polished into a bio-diversity park, but helped to grow back into the patch of plastic-free, spongy, squishy, sandy wilderness that it once was.

Across the country, in schools, children should be taught to appreciate India’s less glamorous, less stereotypical, rich eco-systems – reed-filled riverbeds, marshy wetlands, pale, swaying grasslands, clumpy deserts, along with the more popular dense, green forests and gently flowing ancient rivers.

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