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Image stained for ruining Yamuna floodplain, Art of Living buys PR help

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:46 IST

Six months into fighting a legal case for alleged environmental violations, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living Foundation has hired a "crisis communications" agency to wage its public relations battle.

The New York-based Hill+Knowlton Strategies was hired earlier this month.

The AOLF has been facing fire since holding its World Culture Festival on the ecologically sensitive Yamuna floodplain in March 2016. The event had drawn several lakh. The AOLF has been sued before the National Green Tribunal for damaging the fragile ecology of the floodplain.

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

The AOLF account at Hill+Knowlton is being handled by Aseem Bhargava, vice president for media and crisis. Speaking to Catch, Bhargava said he comes from a background of handling crisis communications. At his previous employer Perfect Relations, he handled accounts for SpeakAsia, which was at the centre of a Rs 2,200 crore cheating case, and Continental Airlines after its staff had frisked former President of India APJ Abdul Kalam at an airport in the United States.

On its website, Hill+Knowlton sells itself thus: "You can rarely predict a crisis. But you can always prepare yourself to handle one if it happens, and ensure you have the right communication partner by your side to manage it for you... We have ably supported numerous clients in times of crisis with strategic thinking, crisis communication messaging, and on ground influencer management."

The firm has been visiting editorial offices of publications in New Delhi that have covered the Art of Living case.

The AOLF has engaging a crisis communications firm after suffering several setbacks since the NGT hearing commenced in March. Although it maintains that it caused no damage to the Yamuna floodplain, the odds are increasingly stacked against it.

In March, the NGT had asked the AOFL to pay Rs 5 crore, before the event, as interim compensation for the damages caused. It instead paid only Rs 25 lakh, promising to pay the balance Rs 4.75 crore within a month. However, it later asked the NGT if it could submit a bank guarantee instead, only for the proposal to be rejected. After repeated delays, the foundation finally paid the balance compensation in June this year.

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

After making the payment, the AOLF held a press briefing, where it claimed that neither had the venue been a floodplain nor had the place been flattened or compacted as was being alleged. It even challenged the composition of an NGT-appointed expert committee and asked that the AOLF's own nominees be added to the the committee. This was denied.

In August, the NGT's expert committee submitted a scathing report that said the AOLF event had "completely damaged" the ecology of the floodplain and caused irreversible loss of biodiversity. The report also said that it would take about 10 years for the ecology to be restored.

There are reports that in its recent affidavit to the NGT, the AOLF made false claims about where the debris from the floodplain was dumped.

Now, the NGT expert committee has been asked to quantify the damages caused to the floodplain by the AOL festival and, accordingly, fix a cost of restoration to be imposed on the AOLF. This means that the foundation can possibly be asked to pay more than the Rs 5 crore it already has.

In a hearing on 28 September, where the NGT's judicial member Justice Jawad Rahim stood in for the chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar who was on leave, the tribunal's principal bench said the expert committee has sought more time since the venue was inaccessible after being inundated by the monsoon waters. The committee has asked for time to visit the venue in November. The NGT has set 7 October as the date for hearing arguments on whether this should be allowed.

Also Read: Bank Guarantees: a new art of payment by the Art of Living Foundation

First published: 28 September 2016, 8:48 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.