The High Court in Bangladesh delivered a historic judgement on February 3, declaring rivers as legal entity and assigning the National River Protection Commission (NRPC) as the legal guardian to act as their parents in protecting the rights of waterbodies, canals, beels, shorelines, hills and forests. Indeed, this is the most comprehensive verdict by any court in the world that gives such specific directions to protect the rights of rivers or any other natural entity.
The HC in Bangladesh deserves accolade for being so thorough with its directions. The case of Bangladesh's rivers is not the first verdict by a court to assign legal status to a river. In 2017, the parliament in New Zealand granted the Whanganui, the nation's longest navigable river, the same legal protection as a person. Similar to a legal trust, the river will be represented in court by a representative of the indigenous Maori people and a representative of the crown. Following that verdict, a court in India has ensured that the Whanganui won't be the only body of water with legal status: The Ganges river and its tributary, the Yamuna, were also granted the rights of personhood in the same year. In 2008, the government of Ecuador changed its constitution to enshrine nature with human-like rights, “to exist, persist, maintain, and regenerate its vital cycles.” In 2010, Bolivia passed the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, giving nature equal rights to humans.
The HC verdict in Bangladesh regarding the legal rights of rivers goes beyond just recognising rivers as legal entities; it outlines a mechanism to implement the rights of rivers. The HC provided detailed directions to several government agencies to take steps to enlist the land grabbers and to publish the names of perpetrators, not to provide loans nor to allow them to run for public offices, to treat river grabbing as a crime, to remove illegal structures from rivers, and to amend the laws to punish criminals responsible for the deterioration of the natural flow of rivers. Now, the big questions that begs answer is, will the HC judgement be enough to save our rivers?
The answer is probably no. The legislative and executive branches of the government will have to embrace this verdict wholeheartedly and will have to commit to the implementation of this verdict. In addition, civil society, media, and general public will have to honour this verdict and do their parts in implementing it. This verdict resulted from a series of actions by various elements of society. Many environmental groups have been involved in awareness building about the sorry state of the environment and of rivers for years. The Daily Star's report on the Turag River was crucial to initiate a writ petition by the Human Rights and Peace Organisation. Following the writ petition, the HC directed the government to stop earth-filling, encroachment and construction along the Turag River. In line with the court order, the chief judicial magistrate of Gazipur submitted a report before the HC in October 2017. Finally, the HC delivered the full verdict ensuring the legal status and a plan of action for various agencies to follow. Similarly, for the verdict to be interpreted properly, it will take various elements of the government and society to work together.
What is to be done next? A court order alone will not be enough to solve this problem, which has very deep roots that has spread like cancer in many spheres of life. For instance, the quality of rivers has degraded because of everyday activities of ordinary citizens, household wastes, medical and industrial discharges, and agricultural activities. To improve the quality of rivers, everyone will have to play their part—the citizens, industries, and the implementing agencies. Similarly, the rivers are dying due to low-flow during leans seasons, as well as diminishing upstream flow in transboundary rivers, which create favourable conditions for illegal grabbers to encroach on them. Many of the land grabbers are sheltered by influential political and social quarters in the country. As a result, the HC verdict of 2009 to demarcate the river boundaries around Dhaka could not be implemented properly during the last 10 years. Similarly, this historic verdict to recognise rivers as legal entity will not be implemented without collaboration from everyone involved.
For the verdict to bring fruit, several things will have to happen. First, the parliament will have to endorse the verdict and formulate appropriate laws, acts, and rules that will pave the way to it being implemented. Second, the law enforcing agencies will have to understand all aspects of water resources, sources of pollution, the legal boundaries of rivers, beels, canals, shorelines, forests, and hills. The government can help in this regard by providing legal boundaries of all water bodies in the country following the cadastral survey (CS) records. Third, a national consensus on protection of rivers and other water bodies in their natural state will have to be reached by all political and social organisations in the country. Fourth, it is important for everyone to first understand and recognise the elements of human rights so that they can demand similar rights for rivers that has gained the legal rights. For example, humans want to be free and do not wish to be chained down or strangled. Similarly, all rivers should have the rights to flow freely without being strangled by dams, or barrages, or diversionary structures on them.
Along that line, the government will have to commit not to put infrastructures on rivers. The proposed Ganges Barrage and Brahmaputra Barrage on the Padma River and Jamuna River, respectively, in the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100 will be a direct violation of the rivers' right to be free like humans. In addition, the Teesta Barrage, Kaptai Dam, and all of the polders in coastal and haor areas impede the natural flow and functioning of the rivers. It is also important to understand that by building such structures on rivers we legitimise similar structures to be built in the upper riparian countries in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna Basins. Finally, it is important to educate our children about the importance of rivers and water bodies starting at elementary schools and continued throughout their educational journey. Inclusion of scientific knowledge about rivers and all ecosystems in educational curricula will be in line with the HC directions to increase awareness about rivers through seminars and workshops at schools and industries.
While the HC judgement is definitely a historic document and a step in the right direction, it will take a concerted effort and a commitment from everyone to be implemented. Rivers are the lifeline of our economy, environment and the very existence of Bangladesh as a delta country. It is hoped that every citizen and government agencies will take this verdict as a good omen and will do what is right. Bangladesh cannot survive and prosper if its rivers die. It is up to all of us to decide how we should save our rivers and our people.
Md Khalequzzaman is professor of Geology, Lock Haven University, USA.