After the historic verdict delivered by the High Court (HC), recognising the river Turag as a living entity on February 3, 2019, exactly two years seven months and 17 days have passed. Once again the HC in another directive on October 21 asks the government to submit a comprehensive list of the rivers across the country by June 5, 2022. The HC further directs the government to prepare an action plan detailing a timeframe, logistics and resources required for freeing rivers from encroachment on identification of river boundaries.
This would not have been necessary had the earlier HC directives given in 2019 been complied with. In that landmark judgment, the HC asked the government to amend the National River Conservation Commission (NRCC) Act 2013 within six months in order to make grabbing of rivers, canals and wetlands a criminal offence. The HC also asked for vesting power in the NRCC for the commission to file cases against river grabbers, investigate into their crimes and penalise them accordingly. In the verdict delivered on a public-interest litigation writ petition filed by the Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh also declared the NRCC as 'the legal guardian of the rivers' and made the commission responsible for protecting all the rivers from grabbers.
The directive that was particularly significant concerns the preparation of a digital database of rivers at the level of union, municipality, district and upazila. All the authorities involved at these tiers were asked to comply with the directive. Along with this, they were also directed to prepare a list of river grabbers within their jurisdiction.
It is evident that a comprehensive list would have been in place had the order been followed without fail. Now another public-interest litigation writ petition has been filed, quite logically, by the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers' Association (BELA) because of the discrepancies over the number of rivers. If three government agencies furnish three different figures of the country's rivers, the first impression is that they have not been serious enough in doing their job. The second impression is that they are not dependable when it comes to conservation of the nation's lifelines. The other day Singapore celebrated rivers' contribution by paying rich tributes to those.
In fact, the agencies responsible have failed to grasp the essence of the 2019 HC verdict in which it was specially mentioned that the secretary of the education ministry would be required to take necessary steps towards inclusion of a separate chapter on river conservation and pollution in school textbooks. There was also an urgency of 'creating an awareness of rivers' role among workers of every factory.
Surprisingly the nation is fed with the widely varying numbers of rivers. According to the NRCC, the number of rivers in the country is 770, the shipping ministry puts the number at 496 and the Banglades Water Development Board at 405. However, an independent researcher M Enamul Huq has made a list of 1,182 rivers in total. The point BELA raises is clear: if the number of rivers is not known, it is impossible to know the figures of encroachers or river grabbers. One could not agree more with the contention.
So this has prompted the HC to direct the chairmen of the NRCC and the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority and divisional commissioners (DCs) to submit the list of rivers as respondents of the writ petition. The court also sought an explanation from 19 respondents why their failure to identify all the rivers and protect those from encroachment should not be declared illegal. Alongside their failure to evict the encroachers and to restore the original flows of rivers to their original state had to be explained. If not, it would be deemed illegal.
Conservation of rivers, at no point, is contentious. But there are powerful coteries within the power circle, who challenge the authority of the NRCC. Unless it is made a sovereign and supreme body vesting in it the unreserved authority to take independent decisions and implement those in the interest of the country and its people, conservation measures cannot be more than half-way house. Climate change poses a far greater threat to the country than it has ever faced until now and rivers have a crucial role to play in maintaining the people's existence on this flood plain.
It is incumbent on the state under the Article 18 A of the Constitution to protect and improve the environment, preserve and safeguard natural resources such as rivers, wetlands and other water bodies, hills and mountains, forests and wildlife in order to maintain a well-balanced biodiversity. Rivers will prove particularly central to the task with the rise in the sea level. If rivers continue to have their original flows, encroachment of saline water may be avoided.
Given all these issues, the government should make the NRCC as powerful as is required and, according to its suggestion, may consider creation of a separate ministry for conservation and revival of as many rivers as possible. A daunting task no doubt and rivers long dead may not be given their life back. But still efforts should be expended to restore the flows of as many as possible.