India cultural fest opens, pays fine for river construction

AP News
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Posted: Mar 11, 2016 12:05 PM
India cultural fest opens, pays fine for river construction

NEW DELHI (AP) — A massive cultural festival opened on the banks of the Yamuna River in the Indian capital Friday despite concerns the sprawling construction of roads, ramps and pontoon bridges would irreparably damage the river's floodplains.

The country's top environmental watchdog has fined the organizers 50 million rupees ($740,000) for building on the riverbanks, but the tribunal said it was too late to call off the event, organized by a group headed by a Hindu spiritual leader.

The Art of Living Foundation told the tribunal Friday 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 (400 hectares), with tents as far as the eye can see. The main stage alone covers more than seven acres (2.8 hectares).

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

Farmers also complained that they have been pushed off their land.

"We feel so bad that they are doing this program on farmers' lands. What if we bulldoze baba's house or his park?" Rekha, a farmer who goes by one name, said, referring to Shankar.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to inaugurate the festival. The event is expected to create traffic snarls over the weekend, and traffic advisories have been issued warning people to avoid roads close to the venue.

The Yamuna is a small tributary of the Ganges that officials say is tainted with sewage and industrial pollution. It is chemically treated before being supplied to Delhi's nearly 18 million residents as drinking water.

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Associated Press reporter Rishabh Jain contributed to this story.