Lucknow now has a swanky Riverfront. Is it the final nail in the coffin for the Gomti river?

It was meant to beautify the river, but the Riverfront project has throttled the river and has had a detrimental effect on its natural flow. It has also destroyed the ecosystem

Ranvijay Singh
| Updated: January 16th, 2020

Ranvijay Singh & Daya Sagar

The Gomti River, which flows through eight districts in Uttar Pradesh, is dying a slow but certain death. We are killing it at its every twist and turn for our petty gains. In order to find out the extent of damage done, Gaon Connection’s team reached its origin at Madhav Tanda in Pilibhit, Uttar Pradesh, and undertook a four-day, 425-km-long bike expedition along its route to understand various issues plaguing the river.

The year was 2005. In a bid to beautify the Gomti river, the Uttar Pradesh government initiated the Riverfront Development Project. As part of this project, an 8.2-km long Riverfront came up in Lucknow between 2005 and 2007. Two concrete walls were built on either side of the Gomti.
According to a research report by Baba Saheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University, Lucknow, the Riverfront project has throttled the river and has had a detrimental effect on its natural flow. It has also destroyed the ecosystem.

“There is no marine life left in the river as there is no oxygen supply. You won’t find any fish or turtles. Moreover, sewage water from 26 drains flows into the river. In such a scenario, the oxygen supply would never get restored. The water stagnates between Kudiaghat and Laamart Rubber Dam – the 8.2 km stretch of the Riverfront – because many barriers have been built. The river has stopped flowing, which is against the basic nature of the water body. The ecosystem is completely dead. The Riverfront has killed the Gomti,” said Dr Venkatesh Dutta, a river expert.

Hundreds of fish are dying in the river every single day. The situation is so grave that news items like ‘Thousands of fish die due to acute oxygen supply’ are common in local news these days.

“There was a time when the water was clean and you could find a variety of fish. But now the water is unclean and it stinks. We have to go far to catch fish now. The river is pretty much dead,” said Anil, a fisherman, at Lucknow’s Kudiaghat.

The river originates from Madhav Tanda in Pilibhit. It crosses Lucknow and eventually merges with the Ganga at Jaunpur.

Talking about the Riverfront project, Venkatesh Dutta said: “In Lucknow, the river was treated as an experiment. There are many lobbies here — the concrete lobby, the cement lobby, the STP lobby. The main intention behind taking the project up was to ensure that these lobbies gain the most. The river was divided into two – urban and rural. This is what they did to the Sabarmati and the Yamuna at Vrindavan. Once this categorisation is done, the planners look at ways to encroach upon the river bed. Riverview apartments and hotels are a common sight across all riverfronts. The land prices skyrocket and rampant encroachments lead to rivers not getting enough breathing space. We even end up disrupting the river’s flood plan. This is what happened because of the Gomti riverfront.”

A river thrives because of groundwater. The construction of concrete walls has led to depleting groundwater level

He added: “The biggest problem is that the engineers and project developers fail to understand that rivers have a breathing space area which should be left untouched. They don’t understand how rivers function. They treat them like canals. They know how to take water out from the river, but they don’t know the science behind replenishing it.”

These issues came up while Riverfront was being built. They were categorically told that the river’s only source of replenishment is groundwater. The riverfront project disrupted the link between the river and groundwater.

“They wanted to develop the Gomti like the Sabarmati was developed. But those who planned the Riverfront forgot that they are two separate rivers. No one was against the idea of beautification of the river. They could have had playgrounds or promenades, but instead, they built concrete walls on either side. We strongly objected to this. The Central Ground Water Department has data pertaining to availability of groundwater at specific locations, which I am sure was shared with the state government, but no one bothered to read it,” said Geological Survey of India’s ex-director VK Joshi.

He added: “We tried to stop them from constructing the concrete walls. The engineers informed us that they have installed PVC pipes in the walls so that groundwater reaches the river. It was a ridiculous thing to do. The water seeps through sand and not through PVC pipes. It’s a natural and micro-level process. When we escalated our protests, they told us that they would drill holes in the walls. The river would never have sourced water from these holes. We eventually gave up.”

The condition of the Gomti river in 2011 and in 2015

The 16-meter long concrete walls are 11 meters beneath the river bed and five meters above the ground level. They are 0.6-meter wide and they have put concrete mashes in the walls which are 32 mm wide. In a nutshell, it’s a very robust structure, which is usually built on ports. They could have done stone pitching at the banks, but since there is not much money in it, they didn’t choose this option.

“The Allahabad High Court, while hearing a petition on increased pollution level in the Ganga, had prohibited any new construction within 500 meters of Ganga-Yamuna Basin – 250 metres on either side. It’s very important to give rivers some breathing space. These things affect the flow of water. But no one follows these rules,” informed Mr Dutta.

“Brajesh Singh, who is the national secretary of Lok Bharti, an organisation that works in the field of environment and has taken up the task of reviving the river, said: “The river is practically dead. There are some amphibians like turtles that are finding it difficult to survive because there is no connection between the land and water. The worst part is that every single person was aware that the river draws water from the ground. But because of the Riverfront, it’s completely cut off now. The water in the river is from the canals. There is no fresh water in the river. The river is stagnant, which is why it stinks and you can’t even sit there.”

When they started making the Riverfront, they even built a temporary dam at Kudiyaghat so that water flow could be controlled and the walls could be constructed through dredging. The engineers conveniently forgot that this would affect the flow of the river. Dr Venketesh Dutta said he personally requested the authorities to remove the dam, but it’s still there. The river now enters Lucknow throw a small opening.

“There is an Act — the Indian Drainage and Canal Act — existing since the time of the British, according to which to create barriers in canals or to change the natural course of any river is a punishable offense. In the case of the Gomti, they have stopped the river, which is why it is stagnant and is covered with the moth. There used to be a boating point where they built the dam. Those people lost their jobs,” he said.

Purushottam Mallah, a boatman, told us that people have stopped coming there for boating

Purushottam Mallah, a boatman, who takes people around the river, said, “Now we can go only up to a certain distance because of the dam. The water stinks so now not many people come here for boating. I earn not more than Rs 50, which is pathetic.”

“When we wrote letters to the authorities, they said the dam was essential to ensure steady water level. In its absence, the water supply would get disrupted in Lucknow. However, there is a barrage at the Gomti, so an additional dam was not required. But they insist that the river would dry in absence of the dam. The fact, however, remains that there has never been an issue pertaining to the water supply. Things were smooth even before the dam came into the picture.”

What’s more, the drains flowing into the river have made the water toxic. The Geological Survey of India’s ex-director VK Joshi said: “There are no big-ticket industries in Lucknow and yet harmful chemicals like mercury, zinc and arsenic are found in the river. There are two reasons behind this. One, the river carries all the filth that’s dumped into it between Lucknow and Pilibhit. Second, all the factories dump their waste in the river. The river is dirty, but it still flows. However, the dam at Lucknow ultimately kills it.”

He added, “Asia’s biggest Sewage Treatment Plant came up during Mayavati’s (former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh) time. But they never bothered to think that a constant supply of electricity would be needed to run it. It didn’t run for too long. Now, if I am not mistaken, it’s running at one-fourth of its capacity. After the plant was built, logically all the sewer should have been dumped here, but they never bothered to inter-link the drains. Instead of one big plant, many smaller plants should have been constructed.

There is an impending threat of flood too

“The river gets flooded once in 100 years. As per the data available, the river got flooded in 1771, 1871, and 1971. We should study this data. Because if this is a set pattern then we should never have built a dam at the river. In case of any adversity, the city would get flooded,” said VK Joshi.
He added, “There was a time when there were around 300 lakes in Lucknow. All of them are full of filth now. Aashiyana was a big lake. They dumped it with filth and a colony came up on that. There are many such colonies like Rajajipuram, and Jankipuram. We made two grave mistakes. One, we killed a natural body, two, we filled the lakes with mud and all the new constructions are slightly elevated because of which during monsoon, these colonies get flooded.

The Yogi Adityanath government set up a high-level committee to look into the Riverfront Project as soon as it came to power. One of the members of the three-member committee, a retired professor from IIT BHU, and a water expert, UK Choudhury, said: “A river thrives because of groundwater. The construction of concrete walls has led to the depleting groundwater level. There is no marine life in the river anymore. We are not even letting water from other streams and tributaries reach the river. As per our findings, the river has died. If we want to bring it back to life, we will have to ensure it gets to draw water from its natural water table.”

(This story is last part of the five-story series ‘We killed the Gomti’)

Read Part One here

Read Part Two here

Read Part Three here

Read Part Four here