Sins against our rivers
Encroachments, illegal river filling, pollution, over-fishing—you name it. We have done it all. According to the National River Conservation Commission's (NRCC) Annual Report 2018, the number of rivers we have has fallen from 700 to 405, of which 50 of the remaining rivers are shared with India. They have been either grabbed by encroachers and unscrupulous river grabbers, polluted so badly that the river water cannot flow anymore, or overfished so badly that the rivers' biodiversity has been harmed. The list of atrocities we have dealt to our rivers is long and unending.
For example, back when I was going to Jahangirnagar University for my classes, I had to commute past the Ashulia area from 2016 to 2020. I used to marvel at the Turag river flowing mightily under the Ashulia Bridge back when I first started commuting to my campus in 2016. But in those 4 years, I have seen the river lose more than half its width—the mighty river now resembling a large canal. Unscrupulous river filling and encroachment of a shipbuilding yard and brick-kilns have been responsible for the dying state of this river. And this is the same case for most of our other rivers too.
Despite being taught how important our rivers are since our childhoods—of how the rivers bring silt for farming, play a major role in our water cycle, provide fishermen a livelihood, etc.—our inaction against the atrocities dealt to our rivers only reflects how little attention we give to such a big issue.
Back in February 2019, the High Court granted all our rivers "legal personhood". The rivers would have rights as "living entities" to be defended against polluters and encroachers, with the NRCC being declared as the rivers' "guardian". As punishment, among many other stated punitive actions, encroachers and polluters will be barred from running for office and designated polluters will not be able to take out bank loans. Yet, as is often the case, we hardly see any actions being taken against the perpetrators.
We have laws to protect our rivers (among many other entities), but we do not see those laws actively being enforced. According to the NRCC Annual Report 2019, there are 57,390 reported grabbers. All of them have been named, yet we do not see any action being taken against the named perpetrators. The most that seems to happen is that the encroachers get evicted, and their structures get demolished. But because the laws are so loosely enforced, we see new encroachments mushrooming in the same area after a short time. The report even went as far as mentioning the names of the encroachers, yet proper action is yet to be seen.
According to a report by this daily in 2020, the then-chairman of the NRCC Dr Muzibur Rahman Howlader commented that many of the large illegal structures built around the river banks could not be demolished, as these structures belonged to influential people, and even the government itself. Dr Muzibur also stated that the NRCC suffers from insufficient funding and lack of logistical support to carry out eviction drives.
The 2019 report also pointed out a disparity in the success rates of the evictions of the illegal encroachments, district-wise. A total of 18,579 encroachers were reported to have been evicted. While evictions in the Dhaka district were shown to be 7,378 out of 8,890 encroachers (an astounding 83.09 percent eviction rate), evictions rates in districts like Chattogram (1,351 out of 18,537 encroachers) and Khulna (5,609 out of at least 12,007 encroachers) are abysmal.
In addition to the problem of encroachments turning our mighty rivers into pitiful streams, pollution is also a harrowing factor literally poisoning our rivers. Toxic residue and plastic waste from factories, tanneries, farmland, landfill sites continue to seep/flow to our rivers non-stop. Regulations and fines seem to not affect the large corporations that are most responsible for pollution either. For example, a report in the Dhaka Tribune summarised how the Department of Environment (DoE) collected Tk 2.2 crore from 20 companies from 2018 to 2020 in Chattogram, yet the fines seemed to have had little to no effect in discouraging the ongoing pollution, with only Asian Paper Mill being shut down in 2019 for polluting the Halda river.
The plight of the rivers has often been brought into the spotlight by the press and the NRCC. The NRCC, for example, according to its Annual Report 2019, has tried to spread awareness on this matter through seminars, focus point meetings and rallies, integration with print and online media, etc. The Daily Star itself has covered this matter time and time again—and has even dedicated entire supplements on the matter. Yet, it feels like all this effort is coming to no use. People just seem to not care.
To bring any change at all to the mess we are in, the NRCC—being the guardian of our rivers—needs to be given more muscle power to be more effective. The NRCC needs to be funded well and logistical support should be readily available to commit drives against encroachers. Then, instead of just handing out notices and warnings to the influential encroachers, the NRCC can take action against them at full force. Heavy fines, heavier than the ones that already exist, can greatly discourage transgressions like illegal encroachments and pollution in the future. Communication and partnering with the DoE can help the NRCC to bolster its attempts to protect our rivers.
The rivers were given rights as living entities back in 2019. It is high time that their rights are respected. Rivers are greatly important to our ecosystem, as well as our economy. According to the Save Our River supplement of The Daily Star, 29 of our rivers have been pronounced to be "biologically dead"—that is, incapable of supporting life—with Buriganga being the poster child for this term. Rivers can still be brought back to life with proper rehabilitation and safeguarding. But prolonged harm to them can end with tales of these mighty rivers being nothing more than eulogies of a reality that we will never get back.
Araf Momen Aka is an intern at the Editorial department of The Daily Star.