The Peril of the Washermen’s ‘Gomti Ma’

By Vedanta Agarwal 

Lucknow: Subhash Kannaujia has been witness to the degradation of the Gomti, from his choice seat as a washerman on the river’s Lucknow banks.

Seated amidst the filth and rubble that cover the ghats of the Gomti, right under their clothesline, a group of Kannaujias is outraged by the condition of the river, a major tributary of the Ganga and their beloved ‘Goma Ma’. 

The river is a lifeline for millions of people living along its 475 kilometer course in eastern UP, before it empties into the Ganga at Varanasi.  It is a river that finds itself in peril, at least in the eyes of some people, despite being the central political plank of successive governments. 

“We used to drink from the Gomti in our childhood days and today the water is not clean enough to even scrub our hands,” says Kannaujia, whose many generations of ancestors have worked on the banks of the river. 

Kanaujjia’s ‘Goma ma’ is now suffused with muck and grime which have turned it into a ‘black river’. A Lucknow University survey of date said a complete absence of oxygen in the river had lead to mass fish deaths in the past.

Kannaujia states that the dhobi samaj feels that all governments have shown the same negligence. He says that policies of rejuvenation have not brought dramatic improvements. He goes on to add that construction of dams has altered the natural flow of the Gomti, and hence the pervasive nature of contamination. A boatman is of the opinion that the Yogi government has made efforts to de-silt the river which has facilitated the removal of duckweed and hyacinth from the river water. As a rebuttal to it, Ramprasad Mishra, a local resident who lives in a temporary settlement on the banks of the river, says that the water should be filtered more often. 

Talking about the sewage treatment plants installed by the government, Sushil Kumar Patel, Joint MD, UP Jal Nigam, says that after the laying out of the river map, the government has identified the number of sewage drains that descend into the river. Furthermore, the drains are tapped, sewage is treated and the filtered water is allowed to go back into the river only after the water quality matches the normative standard of Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD).  According to government data, as many as 6 STPs have been installed in the city as part of the State Commission for Clean Ganga (under the aegis of Namami Gange). As per data, 25 of the 61 drains constructed are tapped.   On visiting the Gomti that meanders through the New Hyderabad area, it is found that the drainage pipelines  central to the operation of the sewage plants have not yet been connected to the river. The pipelines have been constructed but have not been tapped in some areas which is why untreated sewage from industries, human litter, refuse from crematoriums and other kinds of waste continue to contaminate river water.

Raghav Verma, senior professor at IIT Bombay, says that river water treatment demands immediate attention as security, welfare and economics of a nation are determined by the health of its citizens. He has advocated state of the art techniques of water purification in his project proposal report on ‘Accelerator Technology on Water Purification’ to the Niti Aayog and the technical team of National Mission for Clean Ganga. He has proposed the employment of Advanced Oxidation-Reduction Processes (AORPs). They combine both types of radical reactions to degrade contaminants. He adds that AORPs are chemical-less high-rate energy-efficient processes, with a wide applicability range. The advantages of this novel technology range from better sewage treatment for multi-speciality hospitals like SGPGI to creation of economical and sustainable treatment plans for rivers like the Gomti. The proposed technology is yet to be taken into consideration by the government. 

The dhobis that work on the ghats consider the Gomti sacred in the real sense of the term considering their livelihoods depend entirely on it. Madan Kannaujiya, a Dhobi by virtue of his occupational lineage, says that they prevent people from defecating openly on the banks, request them not to litter the river and explain to them the significance of the Gomti as an elixir of the city. “We are the real custodians of our Mother Gomti,” he adds. 

The washerman community or the dhobi samaj of Lucknow feels that no government has ever recognised its importance or given it its due rights in the campaign to revamp the Gomti. The Kannaujias say that the governments have only given tokenistic representation to them by designating ministerial posts to someone from within their community but have never done anything for their betterment. 

Another washerman, Vivek Kumar says that the government can easily construct dhobi ghats on the pavements along the Gomti river but it refuses to do so, instead they were asked to build piers in lands much distant from the Gomti. He adds that they don’t only conduct their business here but protect the sanctity of the river by deterring people from polluting the river.