Environmental and safety fears cloud start of huge Delhi festival


A massive cultural festival has opened on the banks of the Yamuna river in Delhi despite concerns that the sprawling construction of roads, ramps and pontoon bridges will irreparably damage the river floodplain.

Defying environmental regulations, a massive arena has been constructed on the vast floodplain of the Yamuna, which flows through India’s congested national capital region. The festival commemorates the life and work of an influential yogi.

The World Culture Festival, a three-day music, dance and yoga extravaganza, began on Friday, shortly after the National Green Tribunal criticised the festival organisers – the celebrated yoga guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and his Art of Living (AoL) organisation – for damaging the floodplain and interfering with the flow of the river.

The tribunal also ordered the yoga group to deposit 50m rupees (£520,000) as “environmental compensation” for the damage caused to the floodplain, although experts say the total cost of restoring the ecology of the riverbed, home to more than 200 bird species, may exceed 1bn rupees (£10.5m).

The yoga guru, known popularly as Sri Sri and considered close to prime minister Narendra Modi’s government, was initially defiant. “We’ve done nothing wrong,” he said. “I’ll go to jail, but won’t pay the fine.” The tribunal has given AoL three weeks to pay the full compensation, but AoL says it will appeal against the judge’s order.

Yet the faith of tens of thousands of Sri Sri’s devotees remained unshaken, as they poured into the festival grounds on Friday.

People sit on the steps of the stage on the banks of the Yamuna river.

“How can we damage the environment?” asked Nivedita, a schoolteacher from Bangalore, as she stood on the riverbed surrounded by “Keep Yamuna Clean” signs. “AoL works for the environment – we’ve planted so many trees, cleaned up so many lakes and rivers everywhere.”

About 22,000 foreign devotees are said to have arrived in Delhi for the AOL celebrations, including many from Latin America, where Sri Sri has a significant following.

Among them was Fernanda Sinclair, a young nurse from Buenos Aires. “Guruji [Sri Sri] successfully negotiated a peace deal between the Colombian government and the Farc guerrillas,” she said. “It’s nothing short of a miracle. He has also made a huge difference to my life.”

Why, then, had Sri Sri chosen the ecologically sensitive Yamuna floodplains for his festival instead of a sports stadium? An official AoL handout said: “This will be an attempt to enter the Guinness World Records for the largest temporary stage in the world.”

Construction work for the World Culture Festival on 1 March.

A stage occupying three hectares (seven acres) and standing 14 metres high is the centrepiece of the festival area, which covers a total of 400 hectares. Thousands of dancers and drummers will perform simultaneously on this sprawling stage, which is capped by golden domes. Such a grandiose platform could not have been built in an enclosed stadium.

The tribunal order was not the only dampener on the festival. As an unseasonal drizzle descended on Delhi, the public works department raised questions about the stability of the giant stage, while the police reportedly warned of the risk of “stampede … pandemonium … and utter chaos”. Massive traffic jams were also predicted.

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