THE haor region of Bangladesh is unique in the world. Although there are some haors in Asam of India, but there is no second example of vast haor region such as the one in Bangladesh comprising of 375 haors.
Seven districts of the north east region of Bangladesh — the low land areas of Sunamganj, Habiganj, Sylhet, Moulovibazar, Brahminbaria, Kishoreganj and Netrakona — are marked collectively as haor region. Keeping Meghalaya in the north, Asam-Monipur in the west and Tripura-Mijoram in the south, this region of the country is lower than the average plain region of the country due to the Dauki Fault. In some places, this region is only 4-5 metres higher than the sea level. The region looks like an eating bowl — surrounded by hills, low land. The seasonal wind from the Bay of Bengal and the Himalayas in the upstream cause the highest rainfall of the world in the Cherrapunji of Asam, and the haor region is just a few kilometres away from here. A large portion of the rain water in Meghalaya, Asam, Monipur, Tripura and Mizoram, flowing through 22 transboundary rivers, and the rain water from this region flows to the sea through Meghna under the Bhairab bridge. The 1.99 hectare, nearly 43 per cent of land of this region is comprised of 375 haors of different sizes. Although the local people call these haors in different names, during the rainy season all the haors become connected through water and turn into a single vast water body. It remains submerged up to 6-7 months a year. This shayor (sea) of huge rainwater, rarest in the world, is actually called haor in local language.
Haor is water. So are all the problems of the inhabitants of this area are water-related. One must remember, the water in haor region is not static and still. It starts to contain water in Baishakh (mid April) but the total haor region is not submerged until monsoon in Asharh (mid June). In autumn, Ashwin-Kartik of Bengali calendar (mid September to mid November) no bhashan pani (flood water) exists in haors. This ecological sentiment, the seasonal changes of water flow is aptly captured in the local proverb — ‘Sheete Pao, Barshay Nao’ (on foot in winter, boats in rainy season). Although in Ashwin-Kartik, the situation is such that even walking on foot, the only way of communication, seems difficult. The villages become inaccessible and ‘unliveable’ during this time of the year. People of the haor region are deprived of all the privileges of development including education and health. Without a proper communication system, any government facility remains unattainable to the people of this region. Inevitably, it is only expected that the people of this region wants development of haor region.
How the ‘development philosophy of the plain land’ influence and deceive the desire of the almost two crore people living in this region and continuously implement ‘ill-development as development.’ Two examples are enough to illustrate this ill-development. Firstly, it is common knowledge that the land of haor region is lower than the plain land. Surprisingly, the pillars used in this area for electricity connection are of the same height used in plain land. In rainy season, when haor region is inundated, naturally the electric line comes very close to flood water. As a result, communication by boats in haor region during the rainy season has now become either impossible or dangerous. Secondly, the idea of the ‘submersible’ roads (submerged during monsoon but raised in winter) was becoming popular in the area as a solution to the communication problem. But very recently ‘Avura Sarak’ (roads which are not submerged during monsoon) are popularised in place of those ‘submersible’ roads. The bridges and roads (not adequate for the need) that are already constructed only considered the interest of the business expansion and ecologically unfriendly. Besides, they are built following the road construction standard measurement for plain-land. Therefore, the provision of under the bridge river transport is obstructed at times.
The scope of this article does not allow to extensively elaborate on the way so called development has negatively impacted on the ecology and livelihood of communities in the region. For a basic understanding of the promise and crisis of haor region and the movements in this area, one has to know about the ongoing stream of ‘development’ work. In the name of green revolution, during the ruling of Ayub Khan in 1960, the development projects began in this area. In haor region, the implementation of ‘green revolution’ was focused on rice farming. Setting increase of rice yield as national priority, the Water and Power Development Authority executed many activities including constructing bridge, sluice-gate, promoting use of pesticide, deploying helicopters to ceaseless spray pesticide from the sky that in the end destroyed the fisheries and biodiversity of the region.
In independent Bangladesh, the spraying of pesticides with helicopters was stopped; however, much of other aspects of the development philosophy of Ayub’s regime remained unchanged. For example, the unplanned construction of embankments, extensive and short-sighted use of pesticide, indiscriminate fishing including breeding ones, and turning fish-ponds into farmland. Instead of ensuring an aquatic environment for reproduction, all steps were taken to destroy the fisheries in the region. Before the independence, fish was in abundance and fish was not part of export industry, hence fishing and management of jalmahals (large water bodies) were treated as the occupation of the lower class. Fishermen community would take the water bodies in lease. Moreover, people from all walk of life — Hindu-Muslim, fishermen-farmers — had access to the abundance of fish in these large water bodies.
The constitution of 1972 excluded the idea of common property from the principle of ownership. In this context, the scarcity of fish in other region, availability of electricity, facilities of ice factories to preserve fish, adding fish to the list of export commodity and the establishment of cold-storage including fisheries in the list of exportable commodities encouraged a new class of nouveau riche came to dominate the leasing of jalmahals. These emerging class of influential elite, with the approval of new law and support of police robbed people of their historic access to the jalmahal and fisheries in the region. Eventually, they created their own circle of muscle men to maintain control over these jalmahals.
Rice is the only crop of this region. After farmers take their harvest home, during the monsoon, the majority of the working class people in Haor earn their bread from fishing. However, over the years government has legally prohibited fishing in flood water that deeply affected their livelihood. There have been many mass movements against such decision of the government. The movements that happened on issues around jalmahals saw more deaths and violence than any movement of the rest of Bangladesh. No other movements saw as many deaths as witnessed in haor region. Sadly, even after so many deaths, the movement from this land failed to gather attention of the mainstream politics. Locally, these movements were organised around the demand of unbounded access to jalmahals and legal denouncement of the practice of leasing-out the water-bodies; however, national solidarity in support of these demands was never possible.
Today, political situations are changing. The flash flood in haor region caused large scale loss of boro; about 2.4 million families are living in food insecurity. The people of haor supplied one fifth of the total paddy production of the county. Now, in the face of a food crisis, they are forced to leave their area. Even though, the government hasn’t publicly acknowledged it, but it is facing the largest food crisis in the last two decades. Fish, frogs and cattle drinking from died. This was historically unprecedented. There is serious allegation that the transboundary river water is chemically contaminated. The flash flood this year and the people’s suffering from the region however shocked all across the country. They finally gave voice to the local demand for the denouncement of ijara pratha — the system of leasing out water body. The government continued to be apathetic. In the last couple of month, at least seven people died in political clashes over the control of jalmahal.
In this context, a national committee is formed titled ‘Haorer Pashe Bangladesh’ (Bangladesh is with Haor) to investigate the main causes and solutions of the crises of haor region. In response to the flash flood, the government’s effort was limited to organising relief. The committee demanded that relief is not enough — ‘Shudhu tran noy, paritran chai’ (Not relief alone, we want solution). This committee visited haor region, organised discussions and workshops with different levels of government and non-government bodies and independent experts and activists. At present, the committee is collecting opinion of the people of haor through a questionnaire. At the end of this process, the committee hopes to present a comprehensive vision in front of the people of the country to solve the crises of haor. What is happening in the name of development today in haor region is rather destruction. Most recent flash flood proved that already. The vision presented by the national committee will guide the national movement to save our haors, save the suffering souls of this region.
Hasnat Quaiyum practices law with the Supreme Court of Bangladesh.
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