In our country which is perennially beset with hundreds of problems, a unique few that afflict some areas for a long period of time hardly register in the minds of the people. The authorities concerned in charge of working out remedies remain oblivious to those. Time passes, the problems aggravate life, the victims voice their grievances through protests; but nothing changes. The people besieged with the scourges keep passing through their miseries, often paying the price of faulty policies or infrastructural malfunction.
Surprisingly, despite their being continuously reported in the mass media and enjoying a centre-stage in public discourses, these problems escape the attention of the high-ups who matter the most in these situations. Eventually, the people in general become inured to these problems and the sufferings they cause. But being a part of human nature, patience also starts wearing thin. It matters little as to how weak and problem-ridden a community is. Let's pick the case of a unique kind of water-logging that has made the lives of people miserable in a vast area in the country: Bhabadah in the southwestern region of the Khulna Division covering parts of Jessore district.
The vast Bhabadah area, spread over 487 square kilometers, covers 200 villages in three upazilas in Jessore district and two in Khulna district. Thanks to the periodic media coverage of the sufferings endured by the area, the Bhabadah crisis has been known to the people for nearly three decades. All through this time, 1.3 million people in the water-logged southwestern villages have had to go through scores of afflictions. In the three decades, people's lives in the affected villages have been entwined with stagnant water overflowing the surrounding rivers. Thanks to the malfunctioning of a sluice gate in Bhabadah, silt started depositing on the river-beds of Mukteswari, Teka, Sree and Hari as well as the bottoms of a number of canals and 27 water bodies, locally known as Beels. The normal flow of the rivers began to be obstructed leading to flooding of the villages close to them. After spells of monsoon rains, the swollen water levels every year enter the low-lying lands inundating households, crop fields, educational institutions and vital local government offices. Important roads in the region disappear during the rainy season into large expanses of water. The monsoon water does not recede from vast tracts of land, which has shown that around 90 per cent of areas in Bhabadah remain under fetid water throughout the year. The overall situation, coupled with the villagers' mounting woes, has in the recent years deteriorated to such a miserable state that the name Bhabadah is now considered a metonymy for sufferings. The largely agrarian populace nowadays appears to have reached the end of their tethers. Lots of promises have been made to rescue them from this modern-day quagmire, but they ended up in mere mirages. As years wear on, the Bhabadah villages continue to be bogged down in decades-old stagnant water; stench of rotting vegetation and moss and aborted dreams fills the air. Protests, desperate petitions to the higher authorities, etc. have failed to yield any positive results. Yet, in an attempt of hoping against hope the educated segments of people in the area do not want to give up their fight. Like in the past, the people of Bhabadah staged once again a human chain recently in the capital to draw the authorities' attention to their plight. Apparently, it was yet another last-ditch attempt on the part of the star-crossed people.
The sufferings of the 1.3 million people still living in the five upazilas in Bhabadah area defy credulity. That such a large number of people would have to finally accept a water-logged life as fait accompli has few parallels. Moreover, allowing so many people to live a nearly doomed life is also unconscionable. These people have not done anything wrong like interfering with the course of a river or filling water bodies, yet they have been bearing the brunt of a sloppily planned water-flow device. It's an irony of puzzling proportions. They have been made to pass a virtually submerged life which is sub-human in nature at many levels. They have no fault in it. Children belonging to the villages in Abhoynagar, Monirampur and Keshabpur upazilas in Jessore, and Dumuria and Phultola in Khulna are born and brought up in water; they grow up playing in submerged courtyards or swamps, and attend primary and high schools lying under water. During full monsoon, classes are held upstairs at colleges as the ground floors disappear in water. Sights of teenage girls going to school by boat, paddled by them, are common. Although the comparatively affluent sections of people somehow manage to live in their inundated homesteads, the poor cannot. They take shelters on the roads along embankments, and get finally used to living with their cattle in those raised areas. Paucity of pure drinking water, endemic water-borne diseases, lack of healthcare facilities are part of the present life in Bhabadah. The water-logging has played havoc with the livelihood of many.
The normal rhythm of life in Bhabadah has gone haywire. As most of the people find it, life in the area has undergone a catastrophic metamorphosis. With crops damaged on fields covering 16,442 acres of land and 16,652 fishing enclosures and ponds washed away, pauperisation has begun creeping into the area. Many otherwise self-sufficient families have fallen into destitution. Small businesses like poultry and other types of farming have long gone bankrupt. Meanwhile, one of the most affected fields in the normal activities of life in the water-logged Bhabadah is education. Schools and a few colleges do operate in the area. But they remain under water. Desperate students attend these institutions, as remaining illiterate or not properly educated will add to their miseries.
It was ill planning, poor home work and the consequent lackadaisical style of installing the sluice gate that had led to the project's failure. All it began after the construction of polders along the area's rivers under a plan called Coastal Embankment Project. It was executed by the then East Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority in the early 1960s. The project was undertaken with the objectives of protecting human settlements from tidal surges, cyclones, floods, intrusion of saline water and other natural hazards. Its main goal was lofty and grand. But prolonged shirking of responsibilities, lack of monitoring coupled with bureaucratic tangles had resulted in the project's failure to live up to the local people's expectation. As had been feared, the fiasco eventually emerged as a monster wreaking havoc on the Bhabadah area. On the other hand, minor technical glitches had been overlooked or covered up with stopgap measures for long. Proper and timely dealing with the initial crises would surely have prevented the small problems from snowballing into the massive ones --- as they stand today.
Nearly three decades into the disaster, the Bhabadah water-logging keeps haunting a vast area comprising five upazilas in two districts. It has emerged as a national malady. Experts have suggested undertaking Tidal River Management as a long-term solution to the problem. A section of people familiar with the water-logging would like to see the opening of the sluice gate and making it operative, while others want to have another sluice gate built at the entrance of the Bhairab River. But all this reminds the Bhabadah people of the mishandling and mismanagement of the earlier structural device. Given the bitter experience of the past, many would like the authorities to go for natural solutions. These comprise effective re-excavation of the rivers and canals, and their interlinking. The Bhabadah people have had a lot more than their share of woes. A vast area in a country cannot be left to suffer this unremitting way. It's high time these unfortunate people were bailed out of their grinding sufferings.
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