Disaster looms large in our faces

I was born in the home of my maternal grandparents and that is my link with the village. In fact, it was the highlight on my childhood to spend all our vacations there.

It was there I learnt about village life, people, mango trees, lychee trees, jackfruit trees and so many fruit, ponds, ditches and canals, rice fields, jute and sugarcane plantations, catching fish, bullock carts, buffalo carts, paddy harvesting, rice cakes, swimming, games, market places, 'jatra' (folk theatre) people's joys and sorrows, fun and frolic, 'salish' (arbitration) and so much more! If I didn't have this link with the village, I would be even more incomplete.

My favourite place in the village was a huge banyan tree near the 'bil' (stretch of water). Even after I grew up, I would rush there whenever I went to the village. It had become almost a pilgrimage to me. This banyan tree was there way before I was born. Behind it lay the large stretch of water. The Eid prayers are held there every year. I would join the Eid prayer congregation there in my childhood and watch people streaming in from far and wide. I can feel that vibe.

Round the year, those grounds would be the hub of people's recreation, rest and respite. People would catch fish then come here to rest in the gentle breeze under the shade of the banyan tree, with the chirping of birds above. After working in the fields, some would come here for some respite. Sometimes bare-bodied hard working men would be seen, spending time here, singing while they relaxed. Again, passersby would pause here a moment to offer their prayers. And beside the people, weary cows, goats and buffaloes would also take a break and rest. Dogs and cats roamed and relaxed under the tree too. Sometimes, folk musicians would hold their shows here too.

A few years ago when I went to the village, I heard that a government official, also originally from that village, had come along with a development project. I heard funds would be spent on developing that field further. I had no idea of the consequences ahead. Two years later when I visited the village again, I automatically went to the grounds by the banyan tree. When I reached, I just stood there dumbfounded. The entire field had been enclosed with a wall with a high gate on one side. Entry was no longer free for all and certainly not for cows, goats, buffaloes, dogs, cats, chickens and ducks. And I looked in sheer shock at the shrivelled remnants of the mighty banyan tree, branches lopped off, trimmed, leaving just a tall and unrecognisable tree.

So they must have a distaste for the leaves and branches of the banyan tree and a dislike for the shade, breeze and the birds. I tried to find out why the public funds had been spent on such a development project. I was told that these measures had been taken for the maintenance of the Eidgah grounds (Eid prayer grounds). Who was maintaining what? Had these grounds with the shade and the breeze, open to one and all, been in any danger? In whose interests was the banyan tree trapped within this boundary wall, its branches and leaves trimmed, depriving the people, the animals, the birds of that happiness, rest, recreation, peace and respite? What sort of maintenance or development was this?

Some people made some money out of this development project, but this was not taken up just out of greed alone. This happened due to the prevailing dominance of a frightfully people-unfriendly, life-unfriendly perception of development. If we look around, we will see many examples of such development where all sorts of structures have been erected at the cost of people's interests, where luxury comes before lives.

There are many instances where open fields have been enclosed to make 'parks' for commercial purposes. Foy's Lake is one such example. Also, the setting up of a coal-fired power plant, cement factory and LPG plant, destroying the mighty Sundarban forest, is the manifestation of this mindset. Then there are the mega projects like those of Matarbari, Payra, Banskhali and Rooppur.

One day I was reading in the newspapers that a minister said that the rivers of Bangladesh were very wide. Nowhere else in the world are there such wide rivers. There is no need for these, these create problems. And so the width would be narrowed down and resorts set up, arable land created. First I dismissed it as the usual rot spoken by those in power. There was no need to pay heed to such talk. Then a few days later I learnt that the minister's words were not just a mere declaration made on impulse. The objective of several mega projects aims at narrowing rivers!

The government loudly declares that there will be no project that is a threat to the environment. Yet in front of their very eyes, under their patronage, rivers are killed, forests are killed, lives are destroyed

Like the killings and assaults, there are no accurate records of how many rivers there are in this country. Different official records of the government have different accounts. Given the average accounts, two thirds of the rivers no longer exist. There are many bridges and culverts in the country which have no rivers or streams below. It is evident that there had been rivers or tributaries here before. Even river routes have been shrunk to one third. All this has been caused not only by dams upstream in India but also by large development projects within Bangladesh too.

In the 1964 national water planning, polders were created, leading to the present water logging in the southwest. In the eighties, a national water management plan was drawn up, expanding irrigation with ground water.

Again in the eighties, the World Bank's Flood Action Plan came along. They taught how to control floods by cordoning off the entire country with concrete. This work could not be taken up due to strong protest, but it actually continues simply under a different name. Then came the Delta Plan 2100. Bangladesh Paribesh Andolan and Bangladesh Environment Network BEN criticised the project, specifically pointing out its many errors and risks, but to no avail.

Then the River Bank Improvement Plan (2015-23), with loans from the World Bank and ADB, has been taken up. In the name of protecting the rivers Brahmaputra and Meghna, the rivers are being narrowed and land recovered. In order to facilitate transit by river route for India, dredging is being carried out for a deep channel. Teesta River has been affected by the dams upstream in India. Without settling that problem, Teesta is being narrowed further for a mega project with Chinese funds, roads being built on either side, resorts being raised and more. There is also a Sustainable River Management Plan for the large rivers.

All these projects are being implemented with foreign loans. These provide long-term means of earning for the consultants, the bureaucrats, engineers and construction companies. But the people, to whom these rivers belong, have no idea what is going on. The feasibility studies, public opinions, public approval, are just eyewash. These projects are all in English, the beneficiary civil servants, ministers and consultants spew out a lot of rhetoric and advertise the projects. No one takes liability for the consequences. Governments change, but these destructive projects continue unabated.

The government loudly declares that there will be no project that is a threat to the environment. Yet in front of their very eyes, under their patronage, rivers are killed, forests are killed, lives are destroyed. Indian dams, development projects within the country and encroachment of the rivers by the powerful, all continue simultaneously. Clearing away forests, cutting down hills and narrowing rivers may increase the GDP, fatten a few people, but destruction looms large in our faces!

* Anu Muhammad is an economist, professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University and editor of Sarbajanakatha. He may be reached at [email protected]

* This article appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir