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No clean chit to AOL: NEERI disowns scientist's views on World Culture Festival

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 6:01 IST

On Day 2 of Art of Living's mega event in Delhi, an environmental scientist took a stroll around the venue. In a few days he wrote a 'report' arguing that the event did not damage the Yamuna floodplains at all.

The scientist, Dr Rakesh Kumar, is a director at the government-run National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI).

His 'report', which was circulated around 18 March, contradicted the National Green Tribunal's decision that event had caused permanent damage to the floodplains.

AOL supporters claimed it gave a "clean chit" to the festival.

Now, NEERI has disowned the report, landing Kumar and Art of Living supporters in a controversy.

Also read: Saffron trumps green: How 'AOL vs environment' debate turned communal

In an e-mail sent on 22 March, NEERI acting director Tapas Nandy said that Kumar's opinion "does not reflect the view of" the Institute. And that Kumar was not authorised to carry out the study.

NEERI comes under the prestigious Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

"The opinion expressed by Dr. Rakesh Kumar is in his personal capacity and his opinion does not reflect the view of CSIR-NEERI. Dr. Rakesh Kumar was not authorised by CSIR-NEERI for the same," Nandy wrote.

"CSIR-NEERI has not carried out any such study at the site in question," the letter added.

The letter was in response to questions raised by Manoj Misra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, a campaign to revive the polluted Yamuna river.

Misra had filed the petition in the NGT asking it to shut down the AOL event. The event, which was held from 11-13 March, was found guilty of damaging the environment by the NGT and ordered to pay an initial compensation of Rs 5 crore.

AOL founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar publicly refused to pay the fine, eventually paying an initial installment of Rs 25 lakh.

During the festival, Shankar received support from both central and state governments. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the event, the home minister and external affairs ministers, besides the Delhi deputy chief minister, were present on Day 2. On the final day, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal attended.

Armed with Kumar's report, and the NEERI tag attached to it, AOL supporters (including BJP MP Maheish Girri) had taken to social media to vent against NGT and environmentalists.

AOL supporters like BJP MP Maheish Girri used Rakesh Kumar's views to slam NGT & environmentalists

Girri tweeted on 18 March, when an article about the report appeared on Firstpost: "Hello NGT: 'World Culture Festival did not damage Yamuna floodplain': NEERI expert gives Art of Living clean chit". The event venue falls in Girri's constituency.

Also read: A-Z of the row surrounding Sri Sri Ravishankar's World Culture Festival

On Tuesday morning, TV Mohandas Pai tweeted: "World Culture Festival didn't damage Yamuna floodplain,says NEERI Exposing lies of Environ fundamentalists"

The floodplains are known to recharge groundwater. They also support a fragile wetland ecology, which includes ponds, grasses and reeds.

The allegations against the festival include that it "compacted" the floodplains, which stops percolation of water.

Floodplains also help control floods. The floodplains are submerged when the Yamuna floods, and flattening is feared to cause the water to spill over into the city.

Kumar allegedly wrote in his report that the AOL event caused no damage to the floodplains. For this he cited the fact that car wheels were partly sinking into the mud. He also said that since the 7-acre stage at the event did not involve digging, there would be "no lasting effect".

Kumar is the head of NEERI's Mumbai Zonal Laboratory. He has an MTech and PhD in environment engineering. According to his profile, he has worked mainly in the field of air pollution, water quality and sewage disposal. He is also a member of the Delhi Government's Parks and Gardens Society.

Edited by Aditya Menon

Also read: Isn't it odd? Even Kejriwal kept quiet on Art of Living damage

First published: 22 March 2016, 11:13 IST
Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale

Nihar is a reporter with Catch, writing about the environment, water, and other public policy matters. He wrote about stock markets for a business daily before pursuing an interdisciplinary Master's degree in environmental and ecological economics. He likes listening to classical, folk and jazz music and dreams of learning to play the saxophone.