'River pollution has made Dhaka an ecologically dead city'

Manjur Ahmed Chowdhury

Dr Manjur Ahmed Chowdhury is the chairman of the National River Protection Commission. He is also the president of the Centre for Governance Studies. This former researcher at Kansas State University in the US, spoke to Prothom Alo about the role of the administration and the National River Protection Commission in halting river encroachment and pollution.

Q :

What progress has there been in the 122-point recommendation submitted to the government by the National River Protection Commission? Has the government taken this into consideration? If it has, why are the rivers in such a pitiful condition?

As the guardian agency of all of Bangladesh's rivers and wetlands, the National River Protection Commission is always alert about the encroachment, pollution and navigability of these rivers and wetlands. The country's rivers face various problems due to the pressure of population, development work, water being withdrawn upstream from trans-boundary rivers, and climate change. The National River Protection Commission identifies these problems and updates the concerned government department about this, along with recommendations and guidelines. It is the responsibility of the government's concerned departments and agencies to implement the recommendations. Some of the recommendations have been implemented and the rest are underway.

Q :

Has the river commission done anything tangible to prevent river encroachment and pollution? Or has this commission become a toothless tiger?

Actually no institution of the government should have any teeth or claws. What the government organisation needs to carry out their responsibilities, is effective laws and regulations. The National River Protection Commission is a relatively new organisation and its laws need amendment. Despite many limitations, it has so far managed to identify 57,000 illegal encroachers and published a list in this regard. With the help of the concerned district administration and BIWTA, 14,000 illegal encroachers have been evicted and the eviction drive continues.

Q :

Former member of parliament from Dhaka, Aslamul Huq, had challenged the authority of National River Protection Commission because you all had objected to a project of his. Can an MP actually challenge this commission formed by the government?

The MP Aslamul Huq, now deceased, challenged the National River Protection Commission's authority in river demarcation, but his objections were rejected. Later the National River Protection Commission identified the river territory illegally occupied by the MP and BIWTA along with the district administration carried out an eviction drive accordingly. BIWTA and Dhaka district administration will be able to give an update in the eviction drive.

Q :

After Prothom Alo published a report on the sand grabbers of Meghna River recently, the chamber judge of the Appellate Division suspended sand extraction till 25 April. Various irregularities of the lessee Selim Khan were also caught out. You also had instructed the administration in this connection. Did they cooperate with you?

Last month (March) the Chandpur district administration informed the National River Protection Commission that a certain Selim Khan for many years had been extracting sand from the hilsa sanctuary in Meghna River with 300 to 400 dredgers and bulkheads. The fishery experts expressed their apprehensions to the commission that this extensive dredging was harming hilsa breeding. In fact, hilsa's migratory route may even be permanently changed. Accordingly, the National River Protection Commission instructed the Chandpur district administration to drive away the unlawful sand grabbers or to arrest them. The Chandpur district administration accordingly carried out a drive and chased away the sand criminals or arrested them and also seized a few dredgers and bulkheads. The National River Protection Commission chairman and officials on 31 March inspected the affected area of Meghna River. The area now is completely free of dredgers. The drive by the Chandpur district administration was laudable.

Q :

At what stage is the Master Plan drawn up by the National River Protection Commission to protect various rivers? Or is it just restricted to meetings?

Work on the Master Plan is not absolutely complete as yet. It has fallen back considerably because of Covid-19. But work on the Master Plan is on.

Q :

In a ruling concerning the encroachment of the river Turag, the Supreme Court declared rivers to be living entities. But till date, no action has been taken against those who are killing off these living entities. Does the National River Protection Commission have no role to play in this regard?

It is not true that no action has been taken at all, but admittedly, this perhaps has not been adequate. There is a lack of adequate workforce. Also, the commission has certain legal limitations for which it is not always possible to take the required steps. Presently the law regarding the commission is undergoing amendments.

Q :

The government took several initiatives to save Buriganga and other rivers around Dhaka, the court has issued directives many times, but river encroachment and pollution has not stopped. Why?

A large amount of the encroached parts of Buriganga and other rivers around Dhaka have been recovered, but it has not been possible to stop the pollution. The rivers around Dhaka -- Buriganga, Turag, Tongi canal and Balu -- are ecologically dead. This pollution is so excessive because it has not been possible to take action against the polluters or simply, action has not been taken. The main reason behind the pollution of these four rivers is that the household sewage is taken by the city corporation storm drains to the canals in the city from where the sewage flows directly into these rivers. This Dhaka city of around 20 million people is now a city surrounded by sewage. The main reason for this predicament is WASA's unpardonable failure to construct an adequate number of sewerage lines.

Chemical waste is continually emptied into the rivers from the factories in and around Dhaka city. The organic and inorganic waste has polluted the rivers around Dhaka, even Shitalakshya, Bangshi, Labandaha and Khiro, rendering them all ecologically dead.

As chairman of the National River Protection Commission, on 16 March I stood on the banks of Buriganga determining the target of rendering all the rivers around Dhaka pollution-free by 17 March 2023, that is, on the next birth anniversary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. All polluting organisations and companies were issued notices to stop polluting the rivers and water bodies. The commission will shortly issue instructions to all government and non-government organisations and agencies to stop pollution. Legal action will be taken against those who fail to comply.

Q :

BIWTA occasionally carries out drives to free the rivers of encroachment. But then within a few days, influential persons set up structures there. Will this cat-and-mouse game simply continue?

It is the responsibility of BIWTA and the district administration to evict the encroachers. It is quite possible that they are lax in carrying out their duty. We too hear of such allegations about them. But we cannot look into these allegations due to lack of workforce. Once we get an adequate workforce, these allegations will be investigated.

Q :

Rivers must be demarcated in order to prevent encroachment. How far have you done this? Certain land officials portray parts of the river as plain land and validate the unlawful encroachment. Have you taken any action against them?

Demarcation of rivers is a tough task. However, so far Buriganga, Turag and Balu have been demarcated. The National River Protection Commission has given instructions to all concerned organisations to demarcate the boundaries of each and every river in phases.

Q :

Has Bangladesh taken any integrated initiatives with India and Myanmar to protect and prevent pollution of the 57 common rivers shared with these countries?

There is a Joint River Commission to look after this. If they approach us, the National River Protection Commission is ready to help.

Q :

Thank you

Thank you too

* This interview appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English for the English edition