Yamuna and AoL: selective environmentalism?

BY NIVEDITA KHANDEKAR| IN Media Practice | 10/03/2016
The frenzied media outrage over the event is great but where were the channels all these years when others were guilty too?
NIVEDITA KHANDEKAR poses some pointed questions

NDTV India's discussion on March 9, 2016

 

At the outset, a disclaimer: Having covered Yamuna pollution and other environmental issues related to water, I am against any kind of construction – temporary or permanent – on river floodplains, not just in the case of the Yamuna but for that matter, the flood plains of any other river or the catchment of any water body.

So, I should have been happy to see almost all the news channels taking a huge interest in what has now been termed as a controversial event – the World Culture Festival (WCF) to be organised by the Art of Living  foundation (AoL) of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar opposite Mayur Vihar Phase I in East Delhi.

With environmental activists pursuing the matter at the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and almost all news channels vying for the latest development and/or newest angle related to the event/NGT case, viewers were led to believe that the temporary construction as claimed by AoL on the Yamuna flood plains, where the event is to be held, is a massive violation of environmental laws.

But is it actually so? Is the AoL event the only violation taking place on the Yamuna floodplain? Is it ‘all is well’ for the rest of the Yamuna floodplains, at least in Delhi? It is indeed intriguing to see the sudden interest that television channels are showing in environmental activism. The problem: Why have the channels woken up only now?

"But is it actually so? Is the AoL event the only violation taking place on the Yamuna floodplain? Is it ‘all is well’ for the rest of the Yamuna floodplains, at least in Delhi? "

 

During this week (especially starting Sunday right up to March 9, 2015, when the NGT gave a nod to the event with a hefty fine), various channels have carried different programmes – prime time debates, features, interviews and versions from various environmentalists.

Aaj Tak even ran a poll asking its viewers to vote yes or no on whether the army should have made the pontoon bridge for the AoL event. On March 9, 2016, NDTV too held a prime time show  which discussed “damage to ecology, misuse of the military and Sri Sri & The Art of Controversy”.  Earlier, even CNBC TV18 carried Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s interview.

Not all programmes were critical of the event. CNN IBN managed to give a positive touch by showcasing the young performers who will appear at the event (). Zee News, not surprisingly, gave it a different twist on its ‘Taal Thok Ke’ asking “If Kumbh can be held on Ganga banks why not a cultural fest on Yamuna banks?”. India TV too ran shows that were indirectly supporting the event, though discussing the objections raised by environmentalists.

And then, there was the ‘Press Conference’, the ‘interview by many’ format programme, featuring Sri Sri Ravi Shankar on ABP News on March 9.

Almost all the channels covered the issue. Times Now went with almost nil coverage but did carry a detailed news report when the NGT gave a nod. And it did carry environmentalists’ version in that report (Plea to stall Sri Sri event rejected - too).

So why am I not happy about the extensive coverage?

Over the last three decades, Delhi has continuously witnessed the destruction of Yamuna floodplains, the very lifeline for the city. Be it construction of Delhi Metro lines, its depots and even the residential quarters on the Yamuna floodplains; be it the Akshardham temple or the Commonwealth Games village. Examples abound. Before the NGT was created, it was the Delhi High Court or the Supreme Court that heard cases related to the Yamuna.

The NGT regularly hears cases against government authorities abusing the Yamuna floodplains – the DTC bus depot near Nizamuddin bridge; the upcoming extension to the Barapulla Elevated Road connecting the Sarai Kale Khan end with Mayur Vihar and the portion of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation’s (DMRC) new line joining the upcoming Sarai Kale Khan station going over the Yamuna to the Mayur Vihar Phase I station, being the ongoing cases.

The print media and the news agencies have regularly and routinely covered all these cases and have been consistently reporting such violations of environmental laws. For instance, in October 2015, the NGT had actually applied brakes to the extension of the elevated road as the authorities had set up a batching/concrete mixer plant right on the floodplains and the PWD contractor had illegally levelled and raised land on both the western and eastern bank of the river blocking an active Yamuna channel in the process.

Also consider this: “Some photographs show heavy debris, iron junk and other construction material belonging to DMRC lying in the Sarai Kale Khan to Mayur Vihar stretch, near Lalita Park and the old pontoon bridge. Let DMRC remove all debris and other construction material. In the event of default, the managing director of DMRC shall personally appear before the tribunal on the next date of hearing,” said a bench headed by NGT chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar on July 22, 2015.

But no channel has ever discussed this issue. No channel has ever taken up such a topic for its prime time debate. Incidentally, the channels’ websites do carry stories sent out by PTI or IANS on this issue but the channels’ own content never or rarely figured the Yamuna.

In another case, the NGT has been repeatedly taking the Delhi government to task over its failure to remove the DTC bus depot from the river bed. The print media has been reporting this as routine stories, special stories and sometimes even an editorial/opinion piece.

Photo 1: DTC bus depot on the Yamuna flood plains.

Main news which carries this image.

Photo 2: Satellite image showing the space occupied by the DTC depot on the riverbed and the Yamuna channel.

Main news which carries this image.

Incidentally, the UP link road, the NH 24 and the Ring Road-Nizamuddin bridge T-point fall on the daily driving route of scores of television journalists, and in some cases television anchor/editors, who either reside in Delhi and drive to work to Noida or live in Noida/Ghaziabad and drive to Delhi. The massive space occupied by the L&T site office just near the Nizamuddin bridge – Ring Road T-point - is a case in point. It is surely causing permanent damage to the flood plains.

Even when you make concessions that the metro is a mass public transport and hence a much necessary evil vis-à-vis construction related to its lines crossing the Yamuna, why have the television channels never raised any hue and cry over its massive train depot at Shashtri Park, and later near the Yamuna Bank metro station, or its residential quarters – obviously permanent – right next to the Yamuna Bank metro station?

While it was the NDA government in an earlier avatar which gave a go ahead to the Akshardham temple, it was the UPA government that allowed the Commonwealth Games village to come up bang in the middle of the floodplains. The entire Yamuna falls in the ‘O’ zone of the Delhi Development Authority’s (DDA) Master Plan for Delhi. And government after government, both at the Centre and at Delhi, have only worked to shrink and deteriorate it further.

So the question that comes obviously to one’s mind is: Why have the channels woken up only now? It is nobody’s case that the channels cannot take on the government agencies violating any norms. Or is it easy to target an NGO and easier to neglect what government agencies are doing to damage the floodplains?

Now that the NGT on March 9, 2016 finally gave permission to the event with Rs 5 crore fine imposed on the AoL for restoration of the river bank and flood plains after the event, it seems the programme will go ahead.

So will it be expecting too much that the same news channels – which endlessly debated the environmental damage to Yamuna floodplains, which gave more than usual attention to an event from the environmental angle and which have in general a poor track record of covering issues from outside metro cities – that they will do equally good follow up post the event? That is, keep checking and covering to see if the AoL has actually restored the flood plains as promised during the NGT hearing.

Also, will it be too much to expect that these television channels will now cover all Yamuna related cases in the NGT with equal gusto? That they will also rigourously debate the DMRC dumping debris or occupying a far greater area on the Yamuna floodplains with much more damaging material? That they will turn to other cities too where government authorities and of course private parties have damaged flood plains beyond limit?

 

Nivedita Khandekar is a Delhi-based independent journalist who writes on environmental and developmental issues. She can be reached at nivedita_him@rediffmail.com or you can follow her on Twitter at @nivedita_Him

 

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