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Can our rivers be saved?

  • Published at 12:08 am December 24th, 2019
Eviction and demolition of illegal building in Pabna
Eviction and demolition of illegal building in Pabna Dhaka Tribune

The National River Protection Commission is supposedly the guardian of all rivers, but lacks any power to act on its own

The High Court this year declared all rivers in Bangladesh to have the same legal status as a human being. The landmark verdict was delivered to protect them from rampant encroachment and pollution.

Despite the court order and calls from the prime minister, waterbodies in Bangladesh have continued to be victimized and brutalized, some beyond recovery.

The National River Protection Commission is supposedly the guardian of all rivers, but lacks any power to act on its own. Government raids to demolish illegally constructed structures are carried out by other agencies like the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (Rajuk) or the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA), and others on occasion.

In July, State Minister for Shipping Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury said 15,175 illegal structures were removed from the port areas of the Buriganga, Turag, Balu and Shitalakkhya rivers, and 566.12 acres of encroached riverbanks were recovered. He also said that that Bangladesh had 24,000km of waterways before 1960, and it has lost 16,400km due to negligence and lack of supervision over the years.

And in April, watchdog Transparency International Bangladesh reported that the capital alone had lost 36% of its waterbodies - 3,483 acres - over the past nine years.

And under these circumstances, a new operation led by the Ministry of Water Resources started yesterday in all 64 districts nationwide to demolish 44,000 illegal structures in order to salvage small rivers and canals. 

In Gopalganj, raids razed 52 structures and recovered land worth Tk5 crore. 

In Comilla, 140 structures were demolished.

In Panchagarh, 96 families were rendered homeless when their shacks on encroached lands were demolished.

In Noakhali, drives have set a goal of recovering 1,500 acres of land.

In Natore, 1,500 illegal structures were identified.

In Bogra, 50 buildings were demolished and five acres of land were recovered.

Scores were also rendered homeless in Faridpur. In response, Faridpur Municipality Mayor Sheikh Mahtab Ali said the poor people should have been given prior notice and relocated instead of evicted.

In Bagerhat, locals expressed their satisfaction with the raid to save the water bodies.

At the end of the day, 908 structures had been demolished in Dhaka.

Dhaka Tribune examined records from district administrations and learned that river encroachment across the country was participated extensively by small traders, utility service providers, and corporate giants alike. Both Government and private owned organization encroached the river  indiscriminately. 

Will this round of evictions change anything?

Kabir Bin Anwar, secretary at the Water Resources Ministry, while inaugurating the raid in Dhaka’s Ramchandrapur, said: “We will not stop until we evict all 44,000 illegal structures. The operation is a crucial component of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Delta Plan.

“Every district administration has worked tirelessly for a year to compile this list of illegal encroachment. We have also set up a control room dedicated to this task in the ministry. We will install walkways and plant trees to deter people from encroaching on these territories again.”

Prof Dr Ainun Nishat, a hydrologist and also the former vice chancellor of Brac University  told Dhaka Tribune: “If three key issues are addressed throughout the drives, evicting 40,000-50,000 structures is no problem. Firstly, political will is necessary to back up the pledges. Secondly, conserving the rivers and waterbodies are a constitutionally mandated duty. Thirdly, most land grabbers switch party affiliations to benefit themselves, these people need to be face the wrath of the law.”

About corporate he said, “Who encroached illegally have to bring under legal punishment, this is the legal duty of the authorities.”  

A glimpse of corporate encroachment

Notable entities who have encroached on the canals under the Narayanganj Land Office supervision include: the Haripur 100MW power plant by the Bangladesh Electricity Development Board, Partex Star Group, Epyllion Group, and the Olympic Biscuit Factory.

Meghna Group is notable among the entities who have set up illegal structures near the river port in Narayanganj.

Encroachers in the river port area of Narayanganj include scores of dockyards, 30 sand and stone businesses, a Navana CNG filling station, and a Molla Salt factory.

Authorities have identified 47 brickfields in Narayanganj alone which are actively threatening the rivers and served them legal notices to move elsewhere. 

A BIWTA list of encroachers in Narayanganj whose structures were demolished revealed the names of Unique Group and Aman Group.

In Munshiganj, Anwar Jute Spinning Mills Ltd and Bengal Energy Ltd are among the offenders.

In Narsingdi, Pakiza Spinning Mills Ltd is listed to have illegally constructed a bridge and a four-storey office.

Brac University was identified as having encroached on government lands in Dhaka’s Aminbazar.

Mohammadi Group is listed as having encroached on canals in Dhaka’s Ramchandrapur.

Paragon Poultry Ltd has been noted for encroaching on Nayan Julie canal in Ashulia. Square Pharmaceuticals Ltd and Square Land Ltd have grabbed land from the Bangshi River in Savar. 

In Chittagong, the Chittagong Port Authority itself is responsible for having encroached on the Karnaphuli River to construct agent offices, berths, and jetties. It is joined by Seven Rings Cement, Diamond Cement, S Alam Cement, and the Bangladesh Jute Corporation.