Boat club in public interest? No way!
Dhaka Boat Club Limited, which came into the limelight with a recent allegation of attempted rape raised by film actress Pori Moni, is shrouded in questions about its very existence.
The club is set up on the flood-flow zone and foreshore of the Turag river, yet no one can call it illegal. Indeed, it has every permission required to be deemed legal.
But visually it appears no different from an establishment illegally built on land grabbed from the Turag. So, one may wonder how permission was given or arranged to build this club on that land.
The authorities can bend laws or rules for the sake of "public interest" and then illegal becomes legal. But, as it appears, the club has nothing to do with public interest -- it is solely for the recreation of some influential people.
"We have taken permission from all the authorities concerned," said Nizamul Hoque Bhuiyan, one of the nine executive members of the club, adding that they got the go-ahead from around 17 government departments.
The boat club building did not go beyond the river's demarcation pillars, according to Bhuiyan, also general secretary of Dhaka University Teachers' Association.
The club has 60 bighas of land on the bank of the Turag in Birulia area. Of the land, he said, they got a lease of 30 bighas from the Bangladesh Water Development (BWDB) and bought the rest from locals.
On a recent visit to the area, it was seen that the rear wall of the building is just inches away from the river boundary demarcation pillars.
The Daily Star also found that the club compound was developed by filling up the flood-flow zone along the Dhaka flood protection embankment.
Under "special consideration", the committee for the Detailed Area Planning (DAP) of Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (Rajuk) in 2018 recommended showing the land out of the flood-flow zone.
The committee also issued a gazette notification in this regard, according to an official from the planning control section of Rajuk, a statutory body under the Ministry of Housing and Public Works.
The final approval came in 2019, said Bhuiyan, adding, "They have given permissions in phases. It's the system."
The building was constructed last year and inaugurated in February this year.
The club management also made an arrangement with Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authorities (BIWTA), as it was built right on the foreshore of the river, said an official on condition of anonymity.
According to lawyers and environmentalists, building any structure on the river foreshore is a clear violation of law.
The Water Act-2013 defines foreshore of a river as "any part of land thereof which is 50 metres extended from the highest level of water to river bank".
The High Court in 2009 directed the government to demarcate the original territory of the four Dhaka rivers -- Buriganga, Turag, Balu and Shitalakhya -- and restore those rivers to their original state following the CS (Cadastral Survey) map.
Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, said building any structure, like the boat club, so close to the river and filling up adjoining lowland are violations of the Open Space Act-2000, Water Act-2013, Town Improvement Act-1973, and Dhaka Master Plan-1995.
Section 6 of the Playground, Open space, Park and Natural Water Reservoir Conservation Act-2000 says the government may permit any construction on a flood-flow zone if it does not hamper the Dhaka Master Plan.
Dr Adil Mohammed Khan, general secretary of the Bangladesh Institute of Planners, said, "The area where the boat club was built was kept reserved as the flood-flow zone in the Dhaka Master Plan."
About the process of giving permissions for the boat club, he said, "Usually, professional planners are not included in those committees. So, they mostly take politically motivated decisions."
Besides, questions can be raised about the 30-bigha land of BWDB as the Bangladesh Water Development Board Act-2000 allows it to lease out its land only when it is in the public interest.
Asked about the lease, Dr AKM Waheduddin Chowdhury, director general of BWDB, at first said, "I need to check papers before making any comment about it."
Later, he suggested contacting an additional chief engineer to talk about this. But the engineer did not respond to multiple calls.
Commodore Golam Sadeque, chairman of BIWTA, could not talk over the phone saying he was busy, and requested The Daily Star's correspondent to send him a message. A message regarding the boat club was then sent accordingly but he did not reply to it.
Contacted, former Local Government and Rural Development (LGRD) Minister Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain, who was the chairman of DAP review committee at that period, first said he couldn't remember whether the approval for the Dhaka Boat Club was given during his tenure.
"I don't think that the boat club got approval during my tenure," said Mosharraf, currently a lawmaker from Faridpur-3, who was in charge of LGRD ministry from July 2015 to January 2019.
He again said the club perhaps took approval from the local authorities instead of the ministry.
SM Rezaul Karim, who was the minister for public works and housing from January 2019 to February 2020, said he was not even an MP, let alone a minister, when the boat club got approval from the DAP review committee.
He, however, said he is a member of the club.
IN WHOSE INTEREST ACTUALLY?
Contacted, Shafi Ul Haque, a member of the Rajuk's planning control, said the special committee for DAP had changed the land use plan -- from a flood-flow zone to an institutional plot.
Asked on what grounds the boat club was allowed to be built on land in a flood-flow zone, Ashraful Islam, DAP project director of Rajuk, said the cabinet committee on DAP gave this permission. "It was four years ago; probably it was to develop a recreational facility."
Syeda Rizwana Hasan said the government can permit somebody to construct a structure on such land on the grounds of public interest. But constructing a social club is not in the public interest as it serves only the members, she added.
Dr Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Transparency International of Bangladesh (TIB), said the boat club is not related with any public interest in any way.
"It is just a recreational facility for a few people. The government should have protected the flood-flow zone," he said.
Sharif Jamil, general secretary of the Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon, said it is unfortunate that the people who set up the boat club filling up the foreshore and floodplain of the Turag were actually the people who were supposed to protect the rivers.
That is also the reason why BIWTA people do not hesitate to defend their illegal demarcation of pillars, he said.
According to Nizamul Hoque Bhuiyan, at least one minister from the current cabinet and another former minister are members of the club.
The chief of police, Benazir Ahmed, is the president of the club, which has around 1,800 members -- many of whom are government high officials, businessmen, university teachers, and judges.
Its 11-member executive committee comprises a president, an advisor, and nine executive members with different responsibilities.
A message from the club president on the website says DBC is primarily a boating club as its name suggests.
However, in addition to aquatic sports it will provide other sports facilities such as angling, tennis, squash, billiards and more. The club also seeks to serve "as an oasis to an exclusive group of families to come and spend their free time and meet likeminded people," the message states.
"Located on the pristine and lush shores of the river Turag, it is that kind of club -- where the flavours of fine life are to be savoured by enjoying the essence of the serene splendour of nature while inside Dhaka city," it also reads.
On June 14, police arrested five people, including Nasir U Mahmud, a member of the boat club, and businessman Tuhin Siddique Omi, after Pori Moni filed a case with Savar Police Station.
In a press conference, the film actor alleged that Nasir and Omi attempted to rape her at the boat club around midnight on June 9.