There has been a lot of discussions in the last few years about the illegal encroachment of rivers in the country. The National River Conservation Commission (NRCC) has prepared a list of illegal occupiers and made it public in all districts. Many drives have been conducted to evict the river grabbers.
But the success rate is relatively low despite different sorts of efforts as the authorities could not evict 68 per cent of illegal encroachers. In many cases, the rivers have been taken over again by the influential quarters soon after the authorities evicted them.
The NRCC prepared a list of 57,390 illegal occupiers in all 64 districts in 2018 and 2019. The list includes influential personalities, businessmen, politicians, and government agencies. Some 18,579 or 32 per cent of river grabbers have been evicted by 2019, but the eviction drive halted following the outbreak of coronavirus.
State Minister for Shipping Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury told Prothom Alo that the work of clearing the rivers is a continuous process. Various initiatives have been taken to ensure that the reclaimed areas are not occupied again.
A process to finalise the NRCC’s list of encroachers with more evidence is underway. The eviction drive will resume as per the final list
“A process to finalise the NRCC’s list of encroachers with more evidence is underway. The eviction drive will resume as per the final list,” added the state minister.
Mujibur Rahman Hawladar, a former chairman of the NRCC, said the rivers are not important to a section of masses and policy makers. Many of the responsible officials do not know the river law while some others are not sincere in implementing the law. Besides, many are afraid to take a stand against the influential river grabbers. There are also cases of corruption. All these issues resulted in the low success in river reclamation.
In such a circumstance, Bangladesh as well as the outside world is observing World Rivers Day. The NRCC and other government and private organisations have chalked out various programmes to mark the day, with the theme of ‘River Rights.’
The operation to reclaim grabbed river lands halted in 2020 following the outbreak of coronavirus in Bangladesh. The cleared lands were occupied again during the gap.
Negligence in duty
The local administration carries out the eviction drives across the country, but the Water Development Board (WDB), the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA), and the Ministry of Water Resources and Shipping do not cooperate to the expected level, according to the latest annual report of NRCC (2019).
The report also mentioned noticeable negligence, inattention, procrastination, irresponsibility, incompetence and inefficiency in the enforcement of laws to save rivers.
The influential quarters and government organisations have built large illegal structures in or on the banks of the rivers and those could not be evicted in the drives, said the report.
Besides, the agencies, boards, administrations or committees that are responsible for the eviction of the illegal structures have neglected their duties and took time unnecessarily. These entities even have tried to evade or misinterpret the suggestions, recommendations and requests made by the NRCC to save the river.
The commission also attributed the poor success rate in eviction to low funding by the finance division for the drives. It said the shortage in fund and logistic support hindered eviction and demarcation work in many districts.
If there is political will and the sincerity of the local administration, it is possible to free the river land from encroachment.
The operation to reclaim grabbed river lands halted in 2020 following the outbreak of coronavirus in Bangladesh. The cleared lands were occupied again during the gap on the outskirts of the capital as well as in other districts.
The law enforcement agencies, led by the BIWTA, conducted eviction drives around the capital two years ago, but the encroachers are seen rebounding their control over the cleared lands. During a recent visit to the Buriganga River, the influential quarters have been found operating their business and erecting new structures along the river bank.
A row of shops was spotted on the embankment of the Buriganga River, on the opposite bank of the cremation ground in Lalbagh of Old Dhaka. The office of Nirman Sramik League (construction workers league) was also among the shops. A certain stretch ahead from the shops, there was a signboard of the WDB with a bamboo market behind. On the opposite side is the office of RAB-10.
A cement and rod market of Medina Enterprise, owned by local lawmaker Haji Selim, is situated next to the Rab office. Sand, bricks, and rods have been placed in a recently reclaimed river land beside the shop.
The BIWTA, in a drive on 7 February, 2019, evicted the Medina Enterprise shops and a portion of its godown from Lalbagh Fort intersection, cremation ground and embankment areas. Later, more than 100 establishments, including shops and residential houses, were evicted from there and adjacent Amligola and Baulghat areas on 26 December, 2021. But the reclaimed areas have been occupied again.
Illegal establishments have been set up in Aganagar, Tawapatti, Patkajor, Khagail, Kholamora areas of Keraniganj, and Huzurpara, Kamrangirchar, Kheyaghat areas of Kamrangirchar.
Similar scenario in other districts
There were 46 illegal structures along the Bhairab River in the Nawapara river port area stretching from Afra in Jashore sadar upazila to Majudkhali canal in Abhaynagar upazila. Some 25 of the structures were evicted in two drives in 2020. But all the cleared areas have been grabbed again.
The BIWTA listed 86 illegal establishments along the river in Fultola, Khulna and evicted 10 of them from the area stretching from Fultola upazila health complex to Fultola Bazar on 29 December, 2021. Some 65 others were removed from the Nawapara area in drives between 10 to 14 August this year.
In Jashore, the influential people set up shops along the bank of Bhairab river in Doratana area again after the eviction drives.
Manjur A Chowdhury, chairman of the NRCC, told Prothom Alo that the rivers are being encroached upon in collaboration with the government agencies responsible for river protection. There are also allegations of financial transactions. This is why the eviction drives are not resulting in success.
The NRCC chairman also noted that the administrative officials who are in the field to reclaim the river lands are facing trouble. He mentioned the transfer of the former deputy commissioner of Chandpur, Anjana Khan Majlis, and said she got into trouble for taking action against notorious UP chairman Salim Khan.
A degree of success
Water flow stopped in the 20 km Buri Teesta River in Kurigram following the construction of a sluice gate at the river mouth. Some people started fish farming by erecting dams in the river.
The locals waged a movement to restore water flow in the river, which drew the attention of the NRCC. Later, the district administration evicted the illegal river grabbers, dredged the river bed and restored the water flow.
In a similar fashion, the water flow was restored in the Deonai River in Nilphamari.
The commission claimed to have more successes like that of Nilphamari and Kurigram. The attempt to set up a power plant on the bank of Buriganga River by the Maisha Group was foiled. The construction of a solar power plant and a 45-kilometer embankment was prevented on the bank of the Teesta River in Sundarganj upazila in Gaibandha.
Besides, the illegal Anlima power plant was shut as it was constructed at Shitalakhshya and Meghna points in Gajaria of Munshiganj.
Former NRCC chairman Mujibur Rahman said if there is political will and the sincerity of the local administration, it is possible to free the river land from encroachment.