Keeping rivers free of encroachers  

Shihab Sarkar   | Published: February 11, 2019 22:09:33 | Updated: February 12, 2019 10:44:43

The country's conservationists, especially the activists engaged in campaigns to save rivers, will surely take heart from the ongoing government drive to recover the grabbed river banks. Spurred by a landmark High Court order, the BIWTA has swung into a full-scale eviction drive to save river banks and their adjacent areas grabbed by local influential people. Presently, the eviction-teams of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) are focused on dismantling the illegal structures raised by grabbers on the banks of four rivers around Dhaka -- the Buriganga in particular. The others are the Shitalakkhya, the Turag and the Balu. In over a week the authorities have demolished over one thousand concrete and improvised structures.

Since the HC has unambiguously ordered the government to protect every river of the country by acting like their 'guardians', all the 450 rivers come within the order's ambit. In accordance with this, illegal establishments on the two banks of the Karnaphuli in Chattogram are also being dismantled. To the distress of conservationists, grabbers have long eyed the major river Meghna. At places, unscrupulous influential quarters have already started encroaching on its waters through expansion of its banks. The process begins by making 'enclosures' along the banks' stretches. Meanwhile, the Surma is about to fall victim to grabbers' full-scale swoop. Mindless pollution has already robbed it of its serene beauty inside and near the city.  In its observation, the HC has termed rivers 'legal entities', calling the Turag around Dhaka a living one. As this definition applies to all flows of rivers and their distributaries and tributaries, there are no scopes for any encroachment being excluded. Grabbing of rivers and canals has long been an old practice in the country. This criminal act also occurs in many other countries, especially in those where the enforcement of river-related laws is lax.

In Bangladesh, the extent of river grabbing and pollution has, over the decades, become so reckless and widespread that the acts are considered a norm. The repeated words of caution by activists over the consequences of tampering with river flows fall on deaf ears. Successive governments have also failed to come up with any effective remedial plan. On the contrary, river encroachers in collusion with corrupt elements in the administration made light of a 2009 High Court order on river demarcation. The order asked the authorities to demarcate the boundaries of the Buriganga, the Shitalakkhya, the Dhaleshwari, the Turag and the Balu. But to the woes of the sufferers, the demarcation pillars were set up wilfully in a skewed manner, with the motive to grab the foreshores and wetlands.

The recent HC order has obviously underscored these impediments and adversities. The authorities will reportedly install this time around 12,000 demarcation pillars along these rivers and go all-out to keep them free of tampering earlier made by the encroachers' syndicates.

Due to the visionary nature of the new High Court order, the country's 700 rivers and their branches are expected to remain under surveillance of the authorities concerned. In fact, the menace of river encroachment occurs due partly to ignorance. The acts of water-body grabbing in the distant past would take place thanks to a wrong notion about the right to nature-borne gifts. In that scenario, anybody could lay claim to portions of a river, a hill or mountain, or a forest. Owing to their being located in a sovereign land, it was that territory which eventually began exercising its ownership on the natural sites. Rivers, thus, were declared as being beyond all kinds of individual proprietorship. In an epic observation more than two thousand years ago, the Justinian Code declared rivers a resource that belongs to the whole mankind. A person is not entitled to own even a tiny segment of a river. Through the passage of time, these noble codes and principles have been distorted at will and bent to suit the interests of individuals. And the trend to flout the time-honoured principles, especially those related to rivers, reigned supreme in backward societies. Ruefully, the 21st century Bangladesh emerges as one of them.

River encroachment and the concomitant pollution have surreptitiously crept into this country. The land is poeticised as riverine. Had there been no campaigns orchestrated by environmentalists and no judicial interventions, the scourge of river encroachment would have, by this time, turned into a national calamity. One hopes the HC will not need to come up with another order to protect the rivers.



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