New Delhi (AsiaNews) – Activists, intellectuals and environmentalists have come out against the World Culture Festival (WCF), a controversial event organised by the Art of Living Foundation, an NGO founded and led by the equally controversial Indian guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, to mark 35 years of the association's activities.
According to organisers, the three-day event (11-13 March) in Delhi is expected to attract millions of people on the banks of the sacred Yamuna River to "celebrate peace and diversity". However, the gathering has also proven contentious and generated attacks, in particular because of the environmental damage it will cause.
Lenin Raghuvanshi, head of the People's Vigilance Committee for Human Rights (PVCHR), is one of the critics. He does not conceal his concern over the event. For starters, he is worried that the gathering will endanger the fragile ecosystem of the river floodplains. Secondly, he views the festival’s content as an expression of religious extremism, something that has grown since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power.
In the past, the PVCHR voiced its criticism about the activities and initiatives promoted by the Art of Living Foundation and Sri Ravi Shankar who, Raghuvanshi explains, "does not work for the Hindu religion" but for "far-rightist ideologies" associated with Hinduism. "The WCF falls into the same cultural milieu as the RSS*, the cultural wing of the BJP".
Citing Sri Ravi Shankar, the festival was supposed to be a big meeting of "International leaders and ordinary people" on the floodplains of the Yamuna River, which runs through Delhi. Instead, it threatens the river’s health because of what the Art of Living Foundation has set up over a thousand acres of a protected area.
The festival in fact includes a gigantic stage for 35,000 performers, including 8,000 Indian musicians; ramps and parking sites connected to the stage; and some 360 portable chemical toilets installed at various locations, all this courtesy of the Indian military who will provide logistical support to turn the guru’s dreams into reality.
Notwithstanding the pertinence of having soldiers set up stages and ramps for what is a private event, environmentalists are up in arms over the extensive damage it will cause to the ecosystem of the Yamuna River.
According to the National Green Tribunal, the cost of repairing the damages to the environment caused by setting up temporary structures will be around US$ 18 million, claims that Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has denied.
Whatever the case, the controversy is not likely to quiet down any time soon. For Lenin Raghuvanshi, "whilst the international community pays close attention to environmental issues, with Pope Francis leading the way,” organising the WCF on the floodplains of Yamuna River is a source of "huge devastation."
The PVCHR director has no kind words for the controversial guru. In the past, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar championed the "privatisation of all government schools", thus promoting the Hindu caste-based structure, which would deny Dalits and tribals their right to an education.
Ram Puniyani, president of the Center for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, is also critical of the event. "The World Culture Festival is just an attempt to show off,” he told AsiaNews. “Harming the environment and breaking the law are unacceptable. Indian culture is not exclusively Hindu, which is the only thing on display at this event. The WCF is nothing but an attempt by the ruling classes to show off.”
* Rashtriya Swayaamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organisation) is a right wing Hindu nationalist NGO.