New Delhi: The controversial event on the floodplains of Yamuna opened today with Prime Minister Narendra Modi heaping praise on Sri Sri Ravi Shankar saying he had "introduced" India to the world but made no reference to the raging row over environmental concerns surrounding it.
The three-day cultural extravaganza attended by thousands of people and delegates from a number of countries saw the Prime Minister telling Indians to be proud of their cultural heritage.
"India has the cultural heritage and richness which the whole world is looking for. We can fulfil those needs... But it can only happen, if we take pride in our heritage. If we keep cursing it, then why the world will look at us," he said while praising Ravi Shankar's efforts in this regard.
Modi spent three hours at the event but did not make any reference in his brief speech to the controversy triggered by environmental activists accusing Ravi Shankar's Art of Living Foundation of destroying the river bed by erecting massive structures as lakhs of people are expected to participate.
With controversies dogging the event, President Pranab Mukherjee pulled out of the valedictory session on Sunday. Former French Prime Minister Dominique Villepin, Nepal's Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa, UAE's Cultural Minister Al Nahayan were among the foreign dignitaries, who were present on the occasion.
But several others including Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, Sri Lankan President Maitripala Sirisena and Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah kept away.
Uncertainty had clouded the event with the National Green Tribunal posing tough questions to various government agencies on how the event was being allowed but later pleaded helplessness in enforcing a ban on it.
Nevertheless, it imposed a fine of Rs 5 crore on AOL but Ravi Shankar was defiant saying he would go to jail than pay the fine. Today, AOL's counsel changed tack in the NGT saying it was an NGO and not in a position to pay the amount in a short time following which the NGT asked them to pay Rs 25 lakh today and the rest in next three weeks time.
In his address, Ravi Shankar took a dig at his critics for describing the World Cultural Festival as his "private party" saying "obstacles" do come when something great is done. He made no reference to the troubles AOL faced with the NGT.
Ravi Shankar also told his detractors that it was in our DNA to "care for and love" nature and protect environment.
Rains threatened to play spoilsport but the event went ahead as per schedule amid colourful cultural performances by artists from across the world and addresses by foreign dignitaries