Community Driven River Restoration: New Model for Change?

Rivers have been the lifeblood of India for centuries, nourishing the bodies of its people and the soil of its lands. Since ancient times, they have held deep spiritual significance in Indian heritage, playing a central role in sacred Vedic texts, rituals, and beliefs. While India depends on its waters, individuals and communities, companies, and governments have lost sight of their interdependence with the natural environment, hiding behind bureaucracy, pointing fingers and deflecting blame. The future of the rivers requires rising above political posturing to mobilize collective action towards solutions.

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River Yamuna iPhotograph, Credit DOTW News

With this goal in mind, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar decided to host the Art of Living Foundation's World Culture Festival on the Yamuna River in the Delta River Valley in an area that was barren, polluted and unfit for any event. As one of the first NGOs to start putting attention on the Yamuna River several years ago, the Art of Living Foundation has taken on additional cost and risk in order to clean the river and the land, wading through bureaucratic red tape to secure permits from the city government. Through the organizing of the World Culture Festival, have raised public environmental awareness and environmental stewardship by orchestrating an eco-friendly event of this scale and clean up the valley.

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River Yamuna in New Delhi, Photo Credit : AP

The Delhi Yamuna River Valley has long been a ground for companies and government agencies to dump waste while city officials have looked the other way. With little care for the river as a natural resource, individuals driven by political corruption, corporate greed, and shortsighted ignorance have left the Delhi River Valley in such a state of pollution that it serves as a black mark on India's environmental record. Government regulations alone cannot change the hearts and minds of people whose decisions keep the future of its sacred natural resources in the balance.

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The Art of Living Foundation is not new and has long been a leader in river restoration, which is part of what makes new accusations about the environmental integrity of the World Culture Festival especially surprising. Guided by academic and technical experts through approaches like tree planting, tanks, injection wells, groundwater wells, and removal of tons of garbage and waste, the organization has been restoring 16 rivers across India, through an effective methodology that is now being replicated across the country. The secret to the Foundation's success in restoring and sustaining healthy rivers lies in its approach: inspiration and education across multiple sectors, oriented towards long-term change, not just short-term cleanup. This approach engages technical experts, volunteers, members of surrounding villages, and corporations. It is essential to engage the community most affected, who are often unknowingly contributing to the problem, and the institutions whose practices dramatically influence environmental outcomes.

"We need to revive the ancient practice of honoring and conserving the balance of nature. Rivers are the lifeline of any civilization. Unfortunately, our rivers have been neglected for a long time and as a result, many have been polluted or dried up... The success of this effort requires both inspiration and expertise." - Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

Change isn't always easy, even when it's delivered from a space of goodwill. Creating social and environmental change has given rise to some criticism from the very environmental committee who had failed to protect the Yamuna River in first place, and who may have a political agenda. Given the Art of Living Foundation's legacy of environmental stewardship, however, this criticism can do little to undermine the ample evidence of Sri Sri's and the Foundation's deep commitment to preserving the sacred rivers of India.