River activists say the damage to the river’s fragile floodplain will take many years to undo. A team of the National Green Tribunal that visited the site said that it would take nearly $ 1.8 million to restore the floodplains.
On Wednesday, the green court allowed the event to take place but asked the guru's foundation to pay a fine of over $ 750,000, and imposed a lower penalty of about $ 1500 on the city's pollution board.
The bearded guru wearing flowing white robes rose to fame teaching his disciples breathing techniques to relieve urban stress and advising them to pursue happiness. His foundation has nearly 10,000 centers around the world.
To celebrate 35 years of his work, he is hosting a three-day blitzkrieg along the river that is expected to attract over 3.5 million visitors, and about 37,000 artists who will sing, dance, meditate and perform yoga. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to inaugurate the event.
But Manoj Mishra, a long-time river activist, said that Shankar’s foundation has denuded the banks of all vegetation, destroyed farmers' cauliflower crop, built mud paths, dumped debris.
“They have caused a public injury, not a private hurt. They have devastated almost the entire floodplain of the river,” said Mishra, who leads a public campaign to save the river. “On one hand, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar is known as the apostle of peace and non-violence. But there can be nothing more violent than what he is doing to the Yamuna River.”
The government also sent military men to build pontoons for the event, enraging some residents.
On Monday, India’s president, Pranab Mukherjee canceled his participation in the event because of the controversy.
The Yamuna River, on most days, looks more like a drain, foul-smelling and filled with trash. Residents largely ignore the river and rarely visit its banks, except on religious festivals when they fling thousands of plastic bags filled with offerings. Untreated sewage and industrial waste flow into the river and rampant construction along the banks have choked its flow over the years. Its floodplains have been encroached upon by the Metro rail project, a massive temple and apartments.
The new age guru said he has government permission for the event and that his foundation is using eco-friendly materials and erecting only temporary structures. He added that his volunteers are also pouring enzymes into the river to clean it.
“Some people just want to gain fame by making these allegations. In the heart of heart, everyone knows it is a dead river. It is so polluted, so toxic. There is nothing left to pollute,” said Shankar. “To say we are damaging the river is the biggest joke of the century.”