NEW DELHI -- As the World Culture Festival kicked off on the banks of the Yamuna amid rains and in the backdrop of a raging controversy over damage to the river's flood plains, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared the event the "kumbh mela of culture" in his opening remarks, to wild cheering from lakhs in the gathering.
But he was silent about the environmental concerns about the event. The Art of Living Foundation, which is led by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, was asked to pay a penalty of Rs5 crore by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) for damage to the flood plains.
Instead, Modi made a remark which appeared to be dismissive of the concerns raised by environmentalists and others.
"If we keep criticising everything we have, instead of taking pride in our culture, then why would the world look at us," Modi said.
In the wake of the controversy, President Pranab Mukherjee decided to skip the three-day event, which will be attended by more than three million people from over 150 countries. The weekend will be packed with cultural performances, yoga and meditation sessions. Around 37,000 artists will perform on a mammoth 7-acre stage.
Modi today congratulated Sri Sri Ravi Shankar for promoting India on the global stage.
"I congratulate Sri Sri Ravi Shankar for spreading his message to more than 150 countries and representing Indian culture on a world stage," he said.
Modi also added that India was full of diversity and has a lot to give the world. "We must be proud of our heritage," he said.
Describing the event as "fait accompli," this week, the NGT said that it was too late to stop the event and rued that this issue was not brought to its attention sooner.
"It is sufficiently evident that the flood plains have been drastically tampered with while destroying the natural flow of the river, reeds, grasses, natural vegetation on the river bed have been removed. It has further disturbed the aquatic life of the river and destroyed water bodies and wet lands on the flood plains," the NGT said.
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