AOL Controversy: It could be bad optics, but army can certainly be deployed for civilian events
Abhishek G Bhaya
The latest controversy to have hit the World Culture Festival appears to be a letter that Delhi Government’s Tourism Minister Kapil Mishra wrote to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar seeking the Indian Army’s help in building a pontoon bridge to access the festival site on the Yamuna floodplain.
It’s a matter which neither the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and their respective supporters could use to browbeat the other.
Photos of Army personnel making a pontoon bridge for the three-day event, being organised by self-styled spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living (AOL) foundation, circulated widely throughout Wednesday on the social media drawing fierce criticism from a large section of the public.
While the BJP-led Centre faced most of the brunt earlier in the day for deploying army for ‘private event’, Mishra’s letter to Parrikar put even AAP’s Delhi Government on the firing line. It is quite likely, that Defence Ministry leaked the letter to the media to take some steam off the Central Government, which is anyway perceived to be close to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
The matter resonated even in the Parliament, with opposition parties demanding the festival to be scrapped. Janata Dal (United) leader Sharad Yadav questioned the government’s move to divert the army to erect pontoon bridges at the event site. “He (Ravi Shankar) is one person and you have deployed the country’s army there to erect bridges. It can’t go on like this.”
CPIM’s Sitaram Yechury echoed the sentiments: “How can the Indian Army be summoned to make arrangements for a private function? How are they violating the existing laws in this issue? How are they misusing the Army? The government owes an explanation for this.”
Environmental concerns indisputable
All this, on a day, when the National Green Tribunal (NGT) cleared the decks for the three- day cultural extravaganza, albeit after slapping a Rs 5-Crore fine for environmental compensation on AOL and asking it to give an undertaking by Thursday that enzymes will not be released into Yamuna river and that no further degradation of environment will happen. The tribunal directed AOL to develop the entire area in question into a biodiversity park.
Also on Wednesday, the Delhi High Court described the event as a disaster from the ecological point of view. The environmental concerns about hosting an event of this magnitude on the delicate floodplains of Yamuna are indisputable. No doubt the Delhi Government as well as the Central Government and all their concerned agencies made a mistake while granting permission to this event at this particular site.
Moving on to the latest controversy regarding the army building a bridge for the event and Delhi Tourism Minister’s letter to the Defence Minister seeking the same, let me offer an alternative perspective.
Pontoon bridges are built by army only
The outrage in general public seems to derive from the basic premise that it is not the army’s job to serve in a private or religious event and therefore it is also bad for the morale of our forces.
No doubt, it’s bad optics to see our faujis being put to such jobs just like it’s a pathetic sight to see our police and even special forces being deployed for VIP security. However, it is also true that military is required to do certain tasks for civilian purposes as and when required, and after the Central government has approved such a decision following due processes.
In this case a pontoon bridge is to be built over the Yamuna for a civilian event, which is expected to draw a crowd of nearly 3.5 million (correct me if I am wrong). The army is the only agency capable of executing this project. What shall the government do?
You see, there’s no choice but to seek the army’s help. World over, only armies are allowed (or have the technical ability) to build pontoon (or floating) bridges, which are usually temporary in nature. So, if for any purpose a temporary bridge has to be built over a water body or otherwise in India, it will have to be done by the army.
Just ahead of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, when the structure of a bridge near the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium collapsed, it was the army that built a new bridge at a short notice using the pontoon technology. So why this uproar if they have been asked to build a pontoon bridge by both the Delhi and the Central governments?
It’s also part of the army’s duty so frankly I don’t see any reason for their morale to nosedive. It is not as if they are being asked to do something beyond their call of duty. They are being deployed in a civilian project that needs their expertise.
Also, the sheer number of expected crowd in a way justifes the army’s deployment also for various purposes. That’s the practice world over, be it the Hajj in Saudi Arabia, the annual Carnival in Brazil, or India’s own Kumbh Mela… I’m sure there would be many more such examples.
Private/Religious vs Public/Cultural
On the question of the World Cultural Festival being a private or a religious event, let us go by the official records and do not blur perception with reality.
While Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has the image of being a religious guru, the Art of Living foundation in fact is registered as a non-profit, educational and humanitarian organization. It is this organisation that has got the government’s permission to hold a cultural event, and not a religious one.
A close and objective glance on the programme of World Cultural Festival (http://www.artofliving.org/world-culture-festival#/program) will make it amply clear that it indeed has been planned as a cultural event, with participation expected from 155 countries. It does talk about an inter-faith meet, but that doesn’t make the entire event as ‘religious’.
The fact that the event is supported by the Central Government (Ministry of Culture), Delhi Government, Uttar Pradesh Government and Delhi Police, besides being aided by prestigious cultural institutions like the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Lalit Kala Akademi, National School of Drama, makes the credentials even stronger. I, therefore, do not buy the argument that the festival is a private event. There’s no evidence to suggest that.
Having said that, I would ideally prefer governments not to be part of ‘religious’ events in a secular, democratic, republic. Unfortunately that has never been the case in India. If one goes by precedents, such events have been regularly organised (representing all the religious denominations) across India with the support, and at times under the patronage, of state and central governments.
Why did Delhi Government seek Army’s help?
From Kapil Mishra’s letter to Manohar Parrikar, I could infer the following:
• The Art of Living (AOL) foundation wants to host a massive event to celebrate its 35th anniversary in Delhi and seeks support from the state government.
• The Delhi Government, through its concerned ministries, extend its support to AOL.
• After making an assessment of the expected crowd (3.5 million according to AOL estimate), the Delhi government realizes that there isn’t sufficient access routes to the event venue on Yamuna floodplain, despite the army already building a pontoon bridge for the purpose.
• Realising that at least one more such pontoon bridge (the site is unfortunately on the river bed, hence only a bridge would do) will be required to ease the traffic and manage the crowd better, the minister from Delhi Government approaches the only government agency that is capable to do so – the Indian Army, through the Defence Ministry of course.
• We aren’t privy to other official communications regarding the matter, but I am sure Delhi Government would have consulted all the respective agencies within the state government and the Central government before arriving at the most logical conclusion – of approaching the army.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal on Wednesday asked people to end the controversy following the NGT verdict. With just one day to go before the cultural extravaganza, he can only hope that the festival pans out smoothly else his dream of making Delhi an events’ hub will suffer a major setback.
(The author is a Gulf-based Indian journalist. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of jantakareporter.com)