Pilibhit: The place-of-origin-turned-graveyard of the Gomti river

Ranvijay SinghRanvijay Singh   15 Jun 2019 10:45 AM GMT

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Pilibhit: The place-of-origin-turned-graveyard of the Gomti river

The river originates from Gomat Taal, situated at Madhavtanda, Pilibhit. Ironically, this is where it's counting its last breath. The river heavily depends on ground water, but because of excessive digging near its banks to set up tube wells or using ground water for agriculture purpose has led to the river drying up

Ranvijay & Daya Sagar

Edited by: Swati Subhedar

"The Gomti river is our lifeline. It gave our ancestors a new lease of life after they moved here from eastern Pakistan or Bangladesh after partition. It has given us much more than just water. But now, the river is drying up, which is very sad," said Prashant Dhale, 68, who lives in Miyapur village in Uttar Pradesh's Lakhimpur Kheri.

The first stop of our 'Gomti Yatra' was the river's point of origin at Madhav Tanda, a Gram Panchayat at Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh. We followed the river's trajectory on our bikes traversing 425 kms and making pit stops at Pilibhit, Shahjahanpur, Lakhimpur Kheri, Sitapur and finally Lucknow.

We travelled for four days and spoke to villagers living close to the river's bank and authorities to try and access if we can still undo the damage done by us. For most of them, the river is not just another water body, it's their lifeline and they have fond memories of the Gomti that once was.

We first met Kirath Singh, 65, who resides in Puranpur Tehsil's Hamriya Patti in Pilibhit. "I have seen this river flow, now it has reduced to being a stream. It's shocking and disheartening," he said. There are many like Kirath Singh, who have stories to tell.

Reverse action

The river originates from Gomat Taal, situated at Madhavtanda, Pilibhit, which is why Pilibhit is also known as birth place of the Gomti. Ironically, this is where it's counting its last breath. The river heavily depends on ground water for its source and excessive digging near its bank or using ground water for agriculture purpose has led to the river drying up.

This is not rocket science. Yet, we could see numerous tube wells in the region and farmers are heavily dependent on ground water for agricultural use. In some fields, the pumps are merely 100-200 metres apart.

Here comes the best part. The authorities have installed a solar pump at Gomat Taal, through which an attempt is being made to refill the river's source of origin. They are also trying to use water from various canals nearby in order to prevent Gomat Taal from going completely dry.

River disappears…reappears

After we left from Gomat Taal, we couldn't spot the river for the next 10 kms as it has completely dried up. Next, it makes a guest appearance at Panchkheda village. Manjit Singh, a farmer living in this village blames unmonitored and illegal drawing of ground water for its current plight. "I have seen the river die in the past 10 years. It had dried up completely last year."

The primary reason behind the dwindling water table is that farmers in this region prefer sowing paddy crop that is ripe in sixty days – popularly known as satha dhaan – as against sowing regular paddy which takes three months to ripen. This is also why ground water is drying up.

Manjit Singh explained: "Farmers prefers to grow satha dhaan here. Its usually sown multiple times between March and May and requires 10 times more water than the regular paddy crop. The water level near Gomat Taal has reached dangerously low and if this continues, the river will vanish."

He wants a complete ban on satha dhaan farming. He has alerted local authorities and has even approached the National Green Tribunal (NGT) for the same. "It's a nexus. There are many rice mills and pesticide shops in this region because Pilibhit is a huge market for them. These people are not even bothered that they are damaging the environment. Farmers are looking at short-term gains and are not educated enough to think about the long-term damage they are causing to the environment."

Deficient monsoon adds to the river's misery

VK Joshi, retired director of Geological Survey of India,said: "Farmers must understand that if the river vanishes, they will have to pack up and go away. The rate at which they are digging tube wells is shocking. Water level is like a bank account. Monsoon replenishes it. If you don't deposit money in your account and if you keep withdrawing cash from the ATM, you will be served a notice. Nature is giving us signals, but we are ignoring them."

He added: "The basic rule is that if youhave dug a tube well, you are not supposed to dig another one in 1,000 metres radius, but no one follows this rule. In fact, now we are digging deeper tube wells and mining ground water. It was fine a few years back, because those were good monsoon years. But now that's not the case. We haven't had a good monsoon year in recent times and ground water is not getting replenished and that is alarming."

According to a 2013 report by Ministry of Earth Sciences and Indian Meteorological Department -- 'State Level Climate Change Trends in India' -- Uttar Pradesh is the only state in India which has seen less rain year after year between 1951 and 2010.

Manjeet Singh said: "People say that water was available at 4-5 feet not too long back, but now they have to dig 10-15 feet deep tube wells, which is why the river is shrinking."

This is affecting the overall ground water level. As per a report by Uttar Pradesh Ground Water Department, ground water level in Lucknow is dipping by 0.5-1 meter every year because of increase in number of tube wells and bore wells. Many other districts in Uttar Pradesh are facing this issue.

Next stop…Shahjahanpur

The Gomti river flows through Shahjahanpur, where it turns into a river of garbage. The banks are not very wide here, but farmers have occupied them nevertheless. What, however, is upsetting is that those people who worship the river inadvertently end up polluting the river.

There is one Sonasir Nath Ghat in Shahjahapur where people come and worship. They consider the Gomti their mother and they take holy dips in it. The spot where they take dips has been cleaned by, but merely 100 meters away, heap of garbage chokes the river up.People have dumped hazardous wastes like plastic plates and many other things like garlands, idols etc. At this ghat, it looks as if someone has strangled the river. At Shahjahanpur, the river stagnates.

We met Gopal Shukla, 29, at the ghat. He said, "Someone should clean the river. The 'Swachh Bharat Mission' is on. People take out rallies, give bites on the camera, but no one is actually working. We should make people aware so that they stop dumping waste in the river. If we call it our mother, we should start respecting it." He is a believer, but refuses to take a dip in the river because it's so filthy.

Gomti River near Sonasir Nath Ghat of Shahjahanpur

Need to revive it

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: "Any river thrives on two things – it shouldn't be polluted and it should be free flowing. Worshippers have polluted the river at many spots. People should stop doing this," he said.

Reiterating his views, VK Joshi added, "The river has been in existence for 10,000 years. That's natural. What's unnatural is that we have polluted it to an extent that it is now dying. We have taken for granted that it's a dumping ground of our waste. We nonchalantly dump industry waste, garbage etc in it. That's our fault."

Its tributaries: Final nail in the coffin

While talking about Gomti it's important to talk about its tributaries – Choha, Kathina, Jhukna, Saraye. Their condition is more miserable than the Gomti. One can see a layer of filth floating on their surface. These rivers merge into the river between Lakhimpur and Sitapur.

VK Joshi added: "Almost all the cities dump their sewer waste in Gomti. Sewer from Lucknow too flows into the river. When Mayawati was the state's chief minister, Asia's largest Sewage Treatment Plant was set up in Lucknow. But because they couldn't figure out how to run it and where to get so much electricity from, only one-fourth of the plant is operational now. There is a need to build sewer plants along the river. When we are talking about cleaning the Ganges, it's imperative to clean its tributaries like Gomti. Drying up of lakes and ponds is killing Gomti as they are natural resources that replenish Gomti."

Many of the river's tributaries have either dried up or are dirty. When we reached Shahjahapur's Banda-Puvayya road, we discovered that its tributary Bhaisi has completely dried up. Locals told us that it merges with the Gomti, but there was no water in it last year. There is a bridge over it and to support it,authorities have placed boulders, even though there is not a single drop of water in it.

"There were more than 300 ponds in Lucknow. In the past 40 years, we have filled most of them with municipal waste. Aashiyana, Rajajipuram were all lakes, all were natural water bodies, but now there are colonies here," VK Joshi said.

Increase in population has led to people making illegal makeshift homes on its banks. Between Gomat Taal and Sitapur's Naimisharanya, the river has reduced to being a stream.

River expert Dr. Venkatesh Dutta

Talking about encroachments, river expert Dr Venkatesh Dutta said: "We have sold the river, which is quite evident if we swift through the record books. And its been done illegally. You will find many villages along its bank and farmers have lapped this land up. The river hasn't changed its course. We have encroached upon the land. Many farmers in Pilibhit and Shahjahanpur are willing to give up their land, but the government didn't do anything about it."

Pushpajeet Singh, a farmer residing in Pankh Kheda village in Pilibhit said, "During fencing of land, many of us were allotted land close to the river, hence we are farming there."

"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 flow of water. But who really follows the rules?" asked Venkatesh Dutta.

More misery at Lucknow

When we reached Naimisharanya, the flow of Gomti was relatively better here. "At Sitapur, many tributaries – Choha, Saraye, Kathina – merge with Gomti. Plus, many other sources of water are available at Naimish," explained Dutta. After crossing Sitapur, the river reaches Lucknow with a full flow, but here begins the second round of misery.

In March 2015, when the Rs 656-crore Riverfront project was announced by the Akhilesh Yadav government, many activists had protested. The project has led to fishing practically coming to end. We met a fisherman, Anil Singh, at Kudia Ghat in Lucknow.He said: "Earlier, there were a variety of fish here, but after the Riverfront project, it's difficult to get a good catch. Now we have to go really far every day for fishing."

"Everyone wants a piece of Gomti. Many people are eyeing it. Many projects were proposed. The riverfront project was one such. The river was divided into urban and rural, which was ridiculous. Rivers need breathing space. But in cities, the authorities eye rivers from a commercial point of view. River banks are very lucrative. The riverfront at Lucknow is 8.2 kms wide and the walls are 600 mm. They have also constructed a 32-mm wide iron maze around it. There is no need to construct such a robust structure. They could have done stone patching, but since there is no money in it, it didn't happen," said Dutta.

He added: "The riverfront project has killed the river. There are no fish or turtles because there is no oxygen in it. The sewer water has made the water poisonous. The river has stagnated which is also intoxicating the water. There is a layer of silt at the bottom which, as per our estimates, is 1.5 metres. But the authorities insist its 1 meter. No one knows what the truth is."

Giving his views on the riverfront project, GSI's Joshi said: "One can find toxic elements like Zinc, Manganese, Mercury and Arsenal in Gomti and this when there are no such industries in Lucknow. They have constructed concrete walls on the sides, which has created an imbalance and the river is not able to draw water from the ground. When this construction of wall was opposed, authorities said they have fixed PVC pipes within the walls, so that river could draw water from the ground. The riverfront project was as disastrous as the Gomti Nagar project, which came up on the banks in an area which is sandy and helps water to seep into the ground during monsoon."

Flouting norms

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 ground water. The construction of concrete walls has led to depleting ground water 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."

"It's a two-way process. A river replenishes ground water and also gets replenished from it. The engineers who are involved in big projects are not aware of these basic facts. They just know how to draw water from the river, not the other way around. This is the reason why you will find many canals in Uttar Pradesh. These canals are spread across 74,000 kms," said VK Joshi.

So, what the solution?

He said, "We can make an attempt to rectify our mistakes. Till Lucknow, whatever damage is being done, is done. Beyond Lucknow till Sultanpur, we should just let the river be. No construction should be allowed and we should insist on afforestation. There is a need to have an organisation that exclusively works on rivers. We should have a database and people should refer to these numbers before initiating any kind of projects at river banks."

Ventakesh Dutta said, "We need to have a short-term, a mid-term and a long-term plan to revive Gomti. Abroad, many governments have successfully revived dead rivers. That can happen here too, but it will take some time. Also, we need to make people aware. The farmers should realise they have contributed to killing of Gomti."

(This story is Part 2 of the five-story series 'We killed the Gomti')

The Gomti, which flows through eight districts in Uttar Pradesh, is dying a slow but certain death. We undertook a 425-km, 4-day long bike expedition along its route to understand various plaguing the river.

Read Also: River Gomti is dying, we let that happen

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