Raghunath Lakhpat is a terrified man. He can only watch warily as the land on either side of his modest home is being dug up by huge earthmovers. “We are stuck in the middle. Sooner or later, we will have to leave. But where will we go? What will we eat?” he asks helplessly.
Raghunath, his wife, and two sons are just one of the approximately 2000 families that live and earn their living along the banks of the Gomti in Lucknow. They are laundry workers, and are dependent on access to clean, flowing water to carry out their trade. For several years now, they have looked on and worried as the Gomti became increasingly polluted. Now, it appears that their access to the river will also be taken away.
When the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav, advised the Minister for Irrigation, Shivpal Singh Yadav to clean up the Gomti, Yadav looked east for inspiration. Following a visit to Osaka, Japan, Yadav began work on developing the urban riverfront of the Gomti along its Lucknow stretch. So far, this has meant massive construction along the banks of the Gomti, threats to the livelihoods of the many laundry workers in the city, and diversion of water from the the Sarda river to the Gomti. Copying the Osaka model riverfront development on the banks of the Gomti is myopic in the conceptual stage itself because unlike in Japan or any other developed countries, in India, there is great human dependence of waterbodies like rivers and lakes for sustenance.
The problem with copying the Osaka model
The Japanese rivers with their short length and the tendency to unleash flash floods require the sort of channelisation that is seen in Osaka. Despite that, Japan, in its current projects, is focusing on allowing green space and habitats along its banks. This has not been allowed in the case of development around the Gomti.
Studies and anecdotal evidence collected from India's rivers attest to the astonishing diversity of ways in which communities depend on healthy instream flows. These communities are often poor and marginalised with few real options for alternative occupations independent of the river.
The Gomti riverfront development
The plans at present are almost wholly directed at converting the gently flowing Gomti into a straight, concrete-lined channel. A few works that do consider citizens' needs are confined to recreational opportunities for the affluent like jogging paths, lawns, and cycling tracks. The Uttar Pradesh irrigation department is spending Rs 656 crore on the 'channelisation of the river and landscaping'. A 'trunk drain' to intercept sewage outfalls before they reach the river is being constructed at Rs 311 crore. Thus, according to the figures provided by the irrigation department, twice the amount of money for pollution control is being spent on aesthetic modifications of the river. In addition to Rs 656 crore, an unspecified amount of money will be spent on other activities such as lighting, a ferris wheel, and boating facilities.
Robbing Peter to pay Paul
The need for adequate flows in the river is also being given short shrift. Instead, the Gomti is being replenished by water from the Sarda. This is very similar to other river restoration stories in the country; pulling in water from one river to supply another is now the default model for urban river restoration plan in India.
In 2013, India Water Portal had met some groups demanding Sarda-Gomti water transfer. We had then exposed the political motivations behind the demand to make the river perennial at its source, and the unsustainable nature of the proposed transfer.
In this case, water from the Sarda is being brought directly to the already-perennial middle reaches of the Gomti. River Sarda is not just expected to irrigate lands in UP and add to the Gomti's flow, but also supply water to the Yamuna. The Sarda's water is already running short and is supplemented by the Ghaghra river via the Sarda Sahayak project.
'We could manage with tanks'
Lakhpat and his neighbours believe in the rumours that they will be relocated and provided with space to carry out their trade within the city limits. Ramavatar Kanaujia, who is campaigning for alternatives for the laundry workers, confirms that they have approached several officials. Of these, only Ram Naik, the present governor of Uttar Pradesh acknowledged their needs, albeit verbally. From their original demand of access to the Gomti, the laundry workers are now pinning their hopes on a small tributary that joins the river. “If they provide us with tanks to store water from this, we can move away from the riverfont and work,” he says.
Publicly available information about the riverfront development project does not indicate any plans being made for the relocation of these people; they are not even acknowledged on the website.
Concepts that work
Globally, policy makers are awakening to the fact that poverty is linked to the lack of access to safe and adequate natural resources . The urban poor are often constrained in their ability to pay for land and municipal services such as water, depending instead on free and open access to natural resources such as rivers and river banks. It is the free access to land and water that can sustain the urban poor. World over, the urban planners are increasingly seeking to escalate the access of the poor to land and water. In Cuba, for example, families are allowed free access to allotted patches of municipal land where they can create 'self-provision gardens' to raise food.
When India looks to other countries for ways to manage resources better, we need to make sure that we are not repeating mistakes made earlier. The website for the Gomti riverfront cites the Danube as one of its inspirations. It, however, neglects the fact that the countries on the lower Danube are actively working to dismantle existing flood management infrastructure and restoring the floodplains of the river. Doing so, Europe has realised that it could "improve the natural capacity to retain and release floodwaters and remove pollutants, enhance biodiversity, and strengthen local economies through diversification of livelihoods based on natural resources".
Our riverfront development models, too, must recognise the people's need for access to natural resources. Rather than focusing on beautifying riverfronts, urban planners need to take into consideration the role that rivers play in the lives of the poor in our country. A WWF-led study on Ramganga established that the greatest diversity of river-dependent livelihoods was to be found in an urban setting-in this case, when it flows through Moradabad. Urban agriculture, livestock farming, laundry are just a few of the activities that the banks of Gomti support within the Lucknow city limits.
In the case of the Gomti at Lucknow, a riverfront development project that is attuned to the needs of both the river and of people should include sufficient quantity of water to carry away waste, improved quality so it can support fish, a place for people to promenade, and access to the river for those dependent on it for livelihoods.
Rather than trying to duplicate Osaka in Lucknow, it is essential to develop an indigenous model that understands local needs.