“Is the Singha River nearby?”
It takes a moment for Yusuf Khan to process the unlikely question. Then he nods.
But the question rekindled some long-buried memories of a river that wound through Dhaka’s Keraniganj.
“Yes, yes, it’s close by. It’s been a long time since someone asked me that,” said the 62-year-old man as he was sitting at his shop.
“You’ll find it just up ahead.”
“We used to take boats to Dhaka along that river,” he said. “Barges with large sails would carry jute to Swarighat. And paddy and jute would come down from Singair and Paragram.”
In the Fatenagar area of Keraniganj's Kalatia Union, bdnews24.com reports, some people still recall the ways their lives entwined with the river.
In 1971 – when Yusuf was only 12 – the Liberation War broke out and Pakistani forces invaded Keraniganj. His family escaped by taking a boat on the river.
As late as the monsoon season of 2000, Yusuf had taken the river as far as the Bosila area of Dhaka’s Mohammadpur. That was his last trip on it. And over 20 years have passed since then.
Yusuf’s directions led to Khaser Ghat Village in East Aksail – where the Singha River is visible. Despite the seasonal rain, the river has no current. Water hyacinth covers the water. A small culvert joins its two banks and a three-storey building has been built right next to it.
Hossain Ali was standing next to the culvert. He had spent 17 years working as a welder in Saudi Arabia, but he had to return to Bangladesh last year amidst the pandemic. He is now making preparations to go back.
At one time, the river would flow past Hossain Ali’s house. Now, a road separates the two.
“They used to take boats full of vegetables from Kalatia Bazar to Dhaka’s Swarighat every evening,” he said. “They would reach Swarighat at dawn, drop off their haul and return. There were passenger boats too. Everyone around here was accustomed to boat life.”
Zahidul Islam lives next door to Hossain Ali. His late father Iman Ali used to be a vegetable trader in the 1980s. He would take a boat full of vegetables to Dhaka on the river every day.
Zahidul, himself a vegetable trader, said his father used to collect vegetables from the Chokolia, Takimara and Shaorail areas before setting off for Swarighat.
“You would go down the river to the Dhaleshwari and then the Buriganga, Daulatkandi, then Goalkhali, Kholamura, Bamonshur and then the boat would dock at the Swarighat. As time passed, there wasn’t enough water in the river to make the journey in the dry seasons. Now it has dried up to little more than a canal.”
A little way from the river is a motor garage owned by Abdus Salam at a three-way intersection in Kalatia’s Singashur. Fifty-eight-year-old Rafiqul Islam is taking shelter amidst a sudden shower.
Rafiqul, who has spent nearly half his life in Saudi Arabia, said: “The river nearly dried up at one point. Even in the monsoon, there was only a trickle.”
“There has been a little more water in the past few years due to erosion on the Dhaleshwari River. But there won’t be much in the dry season.”
Mizanur Rahman, 52, is the vice-principal of Kalatia College. He still remembers catching fish in the river.
They would use rods and nets, he said.
“The women of the family caught artamim fish up to 4 kg in size with their fishing rods. You would get trays full of smaller fish if you set out a net.”
In Mizanur’s memories, the river still carries a mighty current.
“Boats would take 200 or 300 maunds of paddy to the Swarighat on the river. The current was so strong in the monsoon months that even two oarsmen and a boatman wouldn’t be able to get the boat to shore!”
“On Saturday and Wednesday, there used to be a market at Paragram. Goods came by boat. And the visitors came and went by boat too.”
“But, as time went on, boats stopped running in the dry season. Then the people from this area would walk to Ruhitpur and take a bus to Jinjira. Then they would cross the Buriganga to Dhaka.”
The disappearance of the river has caused a crisis of livelihood for the people who live in the area, the Kalatia College teacher said.
“The river was a part of the lives of the people and the local economy.”
“All of a sudden, after 2,000 years, they build roads, culverts and dams in an unplanned way. And the river dries to a canal. Can a civilisation survive when its river dies? But our rulers don’t understand.”
WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THE RIVER?
The Keraniganj Upazila government website does not list the Singha among its rivers. It only identifies the Buriganga and the Dhaleshwari. However, it does mention the Singha in its profile on the Dhaleshwari.
The Singha begins as a branch of the Dhaleshwari and rejoins it again in Jajira. In the past four decades, the river has slowly dried up. This drying has been accompanied by increased activity from encroachers.
Kalatia Union Parishad Secretary Abdul Motalleb had little to say on the river. Taher Ali, the chairman, was not at his office.
But local resident Parul Begum, who works at the secretary’s office, said the river has grown leaner since her younger days.
“I don’t even think of it as a river anymore. In some places, because of encroachment, you can’t even say a river used to be there.
Many say that it’s hard to find the river in some areas.
Local MP and State Minister Nasrul Hamid said in 2018, during his election campaign, that a feasibility study would be done for the preservation of the Dhaleshwari, Buriganga and Singha rivers.
But locals haven’t noticed any efforts to save the rivers.
Despite this, Keraniganj Upazila Nirbahi Officer Mehedi Hasan told bdnews24.com: “The local administration is sincere in its efforts to save the river.”
“The administration is continuing its initiatives to remove illegal occupants from the riverbed. It will continue efforts to preserve our rivers according to government instructions.”