All about Art of Living Foundation’s cultural extravaganza on Yamuna!

New Delhi :As the afternoon sun beats down on ‘the world’s largest stage’, it glistens from a distance with performers rehearsing a symphony a day ahead of the start of Art of Living Foundation’s cultural extravaganza, almost oblivious of the controversy surrounding it.

Rows of singers, musicians and dancers diligently act their part on the massive stage–1200 ft long, 200 ft wide and 40 ft high—as volunteers scurry around under the watchful eyes of the men in uniform, who swarm the place.

The sheer scale and grandeur of the ‘World Culture Festival’ looks to dwarf any such event in the recent memory but the majestic splendour of the spectacle is marred by a sharp stench that wafts through far too often to go unnoticed as quietly flows the Yamuna, its water pitch black.

Men from the Indian Army, who have erected three pontoon bridges for the seamless movement of people coming from the Noida link road entrance or the Mayur Vihar side, are seen busy giving finishing touches to the floating structures.

“We did not harm ecology rather we made the place navigable. The stage that you see has come up on DDA land. We have not levelled marshlands. We have just hardened the tracks for easy movement of people,” Sandeep Chauhan, an AOL volunteer said.

Sheets of tin barricade parts of the 1000-odd acres where the festival is being held, providing glimpses of reed beds and small water bodies hidden behind. Experts say, these are common features of a floodplain, that houses a variety of insects, reptiles and birds among others.

Three landless farmers, who claimed to have tilled the land on the floodplain until recently rued the loss of crops after it was flattened to pave the way for the festival.

“What could we possibly do? We did not own the land but we have been growing vegetables in the area for many years now on contract basis. They have flattened those farmlands,” said Sudarshan, who hails from Varanasi and resides in a hamlet nearby, as vehicles trooped in and out of the venue, throwing up a thick blanket of dust.

Chouhan said farmers like Sudarshan were tilling the government land “illegally” after encroaching upon them.

Kanchan Singh, a resident of Ashok Nagar, said the whole area acts as Yamuna’s catchment and gets submerged every monsoon. “I fail to understand why this delicate zone was chosen for an event like this,” he said.

Amid allegations, counter-allegations and litigations, there is a palpable sense of enthusiasm among the volunteers and delegates from across the country who unequivocally reject any talk of harm to the environment.

Many of them are busy setting up stalls across the sprawling venue where heavy rollers level the ground and workers put up statues of elephants and arches, all made of ‘eco-friendly’ material, they say.

The AOL Foundation has promised to develop a bio-doversity park at the venue after the event concludes on March 13, but question remains as to how the sheer amount of waste that is expected to be generated will be handled. Various pockets of the eco-sensitive zone are already littered with plastic cups, bottles, empty packets of food and leftovers.