Illegal encroachment and pollution has shrunk the River Buriganga
Illegal encroachment and pollution has shrunk the River Buriganga Shuvra Kanti Das

There are over 770 rivers in the country. This figure was determined by the National River Conservation Commission, with assistance from the local administration.

Chairman of the commission, Muzibur Rahman Howlader, speaking at an online seminar on the occasion of World Rivers Day on Sunday, presented these figures. He instructed the field level officials to ensure that the land of the river Brahmaputra, leased to a solar power project, was vacated within a week.

The chairman and members of the commission present at the seminar placed emphasis on applying the law to protect the rivers. They said that the constitution and the several verdicts of the Supreme Court had given government officials legal authority in this regard.

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The seminar, organised by the National River Conservation Commission (NRCC), was joined by officials of the eight divisions and the district administrations of the country, representatives of the environment department and the water development board, teachers from various universities, researchers and representatives of civil society.

The district level officials detailed the actions they were taking to recover the rivers from encroachment and the obstacles they faced. The NRCC officials repeatedly said that the rivers could only be saved if the divisional commissioners and the deputy commissioners took bold action in applying the law.

At the start of the meeting, NRCC chairman Muzibur Rahman Howladar spoke on the commission’s activities and also presented facts and figures regarding the country’s rivers. He said that according to the administration at a field level, there were over 770 rivers in the country. Another agency of the government put the number at 405. A river expert said that the country had 1,178 rivers. The collection of data in this regard continues. With the help of surveys and SPARRSO (Bangladesh Space Research and Remote Sensing Organisation), it will be possible to determine the accurate number of rivers through mapping.

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The National River Conservation Commission was established in 2013 following a High Court order on a writ petition. River conservation committees have been formed in all divisions and districts. Deputy commissioners have drawn up lists of river encroachers. The lists include 49,162 names. During the discussions, several of the deputy commissioners mentioned how many encroachers they managed to evict.

The four-hour discussion covered details pertaining to rivers in Chattogram Sylhet, Barishal, Narayanganj, Mymensingh, Jamalpur, Rajshahi, Rangpur, Barguna, Feni, Patuakhali, Gaibandha and several other districts.

An official of the Chattogram divisional commissioner’s office said, work on recovering the rivers had come to a halt due to coronavirus. An inquiry of NRCC was put forward regarding specific steps taken by the administration to save the river Karnaphuli. The commission said that if any land of Karnaphuli had been leased out, the lease must be cancelled.

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The Sylhet division officials highlighted the problems faced in stopping the extraction of sand and boulders from the river. The commission said that there was a nexus between businessmen and politicians for the sand and boulder extraction. If the rivers were to be saved, the government officials would have to resort to the law to break this nexus. Muzibur Rahman Howlader said that unless the matter was dealt with sternly, the rivers could not be saved.

A university teacher said around 50,000 people had forcefully occupied rivers. This was a criminal offence. Rather than just handing them eviction notices, they should be handed over to the police

The government officials pointed out that land on the Brahmaputra and Teesta rivers was being acquired for a solar power project.

Certain top ranking business groups of the country were named as encroachers of rivers in Jamalpur and Narayanganj districts.

Muzibur Rahman mentioned a district administration in the south, saying they were blocking the river flow to construct a jetty. He asked, how can the authorities who are supposed to be protecting the rivers, resort to encroachment themselves?

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Officials of several district administrations said there was a lack of adequate funds, workforce and equipment to evict the illegal encroachers. A deputy commissioner said he had applied to the land ministry for Tk 7 million to recover a river, but received only Tk 200,000.

Some said navigability was more of a crisis than encroachment.

There were several complaints that polluted water was flowing down from India through the shared rivers.

A university teacher said around 50,000 people had forcefully occupied rivers. This was a criminal offence. Rather than just handing them eviction notices, they should be handed over to the police.

At the end of the seminar, member of NRCC Sharmin Morshed said, the law states what is to be done to recover and protect rivers. The administration must apply the law.