Environmentalists in Lucknow are distressed. They are wringing their hands over the state of the city’s river Gomti, and the fate of the Kukrail Reserve Forest.

Gomti is a tributary of the river Ganges that flows through several districts of Uttar Pradesh (UP). Once upon a time the free flowing waters of the river had meandered across a length of approximately a thousand kilometres (km).

There was plenty of bankside vegetation then, flowering plants and trees that had helped to filter pollution and shade the water keeping it cool and filtered for the pleasure of a countless species of fish.

Its waters were home to the rare sea snail called the Gomti Chakra, a creature associated with abundance and good luck. The Gomti continues to supply around 450 million litres of water per day to the city of Lucknow but the river is struggling to keep alive.

Low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water have destroyed flora and fauna, and made aquatic life impossible to survive in the river that is drowned in toxic foam.

Professor Dhruvsen Singh, geologist at Lucknow University told the media that a 25 km stretch of the Gomti in the city is dead due to pollution by untreated industrial effluents, municipal wastewater, and the emergence of new drains in Lucknow.

River scientist Professor Venkatesh Dutta, a faculty member at Lucknow’s BabaSaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University said that pollution from sewage, heavy fertiliser use, and human waste has depleted oxygen levels and is the cause of oxygen starvation in the river.

Kukrail’s ‘Developmental’ Destruction

It is the same story of death and destruction in the name of development on land as well. Kukrail is a valuable asset for Lucknow, providing a lush green space of about 5000 acres totalling less than one percent of the city's area.

Established in 1950 as an urban forest, Kukrail is nine km from the city centre in Lucknow. It is the lungs of the city where the forest department has a rich spread of nurseries including a herbal nursery, a medicinal nursery and a sapling nursery.

At Kukrail, it is possible to buy and sell plants at a reasonable price. Despite the modest amount of land it covers, Kukrail is the largest green area in Lucknow.

The Kukrail forest acts as both a carbon sink and a sanctuary for birds and reptiles, helping to combat climate change by absorbing and storing carbon and enhancing the air quality in the city.

The concern of citizens is over plans to clear even this forest for a Night Safari, and to disturb the ecosystem for the entertainment of tourists!

The plan includes the shifting of the city’s zoological park to Kukrail. The zoological park was established in 1921 by the governor of Avadh Sir Harcourt Butler in honour of the visit of the Prince of Wales to Lucknow.

In the 18th Century the rulers of Lucknow had nursed the area as a mango orchard. Today the fate of the zoo as well as the Kukrail forest is threatened as the government dreams of converting green spaces into Disneyland.

Akbar Nagar Bulldozed

The state government would like to turn Kukrail into a hub of eco-tourism at the cost of the environment and local residents. A survey was conducted last year to revive the Kukrail river.

Ordered by the Chief Minister Adityanath, the survey found illegal and extensive construction on the river land. On the findings of the survey, the CM had immediately flagged off a demolition campaign that began last December.

In December 2023, the Lucknow Development Authority (LDA) had cleared up the banks of the Kukrail river. Akbar Nagar, spread over nearly 25 acres of land and situated between the barrage on Faizabad Road and Kukrail river, was bulldozed into nothingness by June 19.

Over 1,800 establishments, both private and commercial were wiped out, leaving residents in tears. Nearly 30 heavy earth movers along with security forces were deployed to bring down the homes and businesses of citizens to make way for an amusement park.

Night Safari Or Nightmare?

The country’s first Night Safari is expected to showcase 54 species of animals caged behind 42 enclosures. Tourists will visit the Night Safari Park through a 5.5 km tramway and a 1.92 km walkway.

The animals will include the Asiatic Lion, Crocodile, Bengal Tiger, Flying Squirrel, Leopard and Hyenas. Beautiful parks are promised on either side of the Kukrail river that will host adventure sports.

For this entertainment park thousands of trees will be felled.

Between 2001 and 2023, Lucknow lost 227 hectares of tree cover. The city's vegetation cover dropped from 34.95 percent in 1992 to 22.72 percent in 2022, showing a drastic drop in green spaces.

Save Kukrail is a petition circulating in the city, for the world to sign. The petition is a citizen’s initiative and points to the hellish temperatures experienced in Lucknow this summer. Citizens are using social media to create awareness of the disaster about to strike the city.

It is a call to society to protect the environment they live in, and to prevent the government from cutting down old trees.

Only recently 300 trees were auctioned for cutting at Ashok Leyland and at Lucknow’s State Transport Corporation. Some 1500 more trees are marked for cutting at the Kukrail Forest Reserve.

A message from a citizen reads, “We exist because they exist! It is not news that our existence depends on nature. We are losing our forests, rivers and breathable air as we stand and watch and do nothing”.

It is the cutting of trees that is responsible for the deadly heatwaves. The weather has changed for the worse due to rapid unplanned urbanisation, and increased pollution.

The situation is sure to deteriorate further if citizens are unable to protect the tiny green cover still left in the city. Nature lovers outside of Lucknow have also been invited to sign the petition online.

Concerned citizens said that cutting down trees for the Night Safari in Kukrail will worsen the high temperatures faced by the city. The area is already experiencing heat island effects in the summer, and according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), things will get worse without green belts in urban areas.

The green belts can only be preserved through the protection of the region’s forests. It is warned that the ecological damage to the Kukrail Forest Reserve would be severe and irreversible, if the zoo is shifted there.

The petitioners believe that the forced move of such a large number of animals from the zoo to a new environment could end in tragedy. The fear is that the animals may not survive the transition.

Besides, afforestation and the planting of new trees to replace the ones cut will take decades to mature and to form a natural ecosystem. Therefore, the petitioners strongly oppose the cutting down of any tree in the reserve forest for the Night Safari or the relocation of the zoo.

Instead the Kukrail Reserve Forest needs better protection. That is the demand of the day, for saving Lucknow's environment and ensuring the well-being of its landscape, residents and wildlife.

Is no one listening?