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Sat, Aug 23, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Indian river a microcosm of ecological ruin


Fishermen cast their nets below a bridge in the Gomti River, in Lucknow, capital of the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Wednesday. Sewage and pollution have destroyed aquatic life in the river, with thousands of fish dying.


For nearly 50 years, Ramakant Nishad caught and sold fish. He is now sitting idle because the sewage-filled Gomati River that runs through this northern Indian state capital cannot breed fish anymore.

Nishad's two sons already have taken to rag picking. He, too, is learning the intricacies of handling scrap.

"The Gomati River has turned poisonous ... It doesn't have fish, all have died," said Nishad, sitting in his mud hut this week on the banks of the river flowing through Lucknow, capital of India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.

He is among more than 500 people whose families for generations eked out their living by selling fish.

"This river was earlier full of fish of different varieties. All of a sudden the fish have vanished," said Sanju, 24, who finally gave up and became a cycle-rickshaw puller. He uses one name.

Aquatic life in the Gomati River was destroyed in June when untreated sewage was dumped into the water, causing a drastic drop in oxygen levels, said N.S. Nagpure, a senior scientist in the government-run National Bureau of Fish Genetic Resources.

It was the second time in seven years that thousands of fish in the river perished.

In 1996, the discharge of untreated factory effluents into the Gomati proved deadly. The state government responded by adopting a law making it compulsory for factories to install facilities to treat the effluent and remove hazards.

This time the offender was the local municipality. The 23 sewage outlets in Lucknow dump untreated sewage into the river.

"There are no bio-indicators left in the river," S.C. Rai, the mayor of Lucknow, told reporters. "There is no aquatic life in the river."

"No amount of ranching -- introduction of fresh fish -- can revive the aquatic life in the river," said Nagpure.

He said that even if new fish were introduced they could not survive because plants and small life forms that they eat are also gone.

People living near the river said the color of the water had become murkier in the past few weeks.

The state government plans to pump fresh water into the Gomati River from a nearby dam after monsoon rains stop next month. It already has started dredging operations to clean the river, Rai said.

Shailaja Kant Mishra, a senior police officer and an environmentalist working with Social Scavengers, an organization involved in cleanup efforts, said, "The situation is grim because the Gomati provides most of the potable water to this city of more than 2 million people."

The water is treated before being sold for drinking.

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