Iqbal Kabir Jahid, chief adviser to the Bhabadaha Pani Nishkashan Sangram Committee, talks about the crisis in Bhabadaha, the ongoing destruction of rivers and the movement against such atrocities against nature in Bangladesh’s north-west in an interview with Shaikha Shuhada Panzeree
New Age: Tell us about the historical context of the Bhabadaha movement? How did you initiate the movement?
Iqbal Kabir Jahid: Instead of saying how we have initiated the movement, I would rather talk about how we got involved in the movement to find a solution to the crisis in Bhabadaha. The Bhabadaha crisis refers to the severe water stagnation in this area. This problem started when a polder system was installed in the north-west regions of the country to protect the land from flooding and salinity. Before the problem of water stagnation, for about two decades, this region was heavily affected by salinity. Historically, the problem of salinity started in this area around 1939-1940. Without properly investigating the reason behind the salinity, a polder system was installed. It is high time that we started to question the reasoning behind the polder system itself, otherwise finding a solution to the current problem would be like casting pearl before swine.
If you ask, why is this salinity in the water? The answer is — in 1939, the Carew Sugar Mills was built in Darsana filling up the River Bhairab. The Bhairab is the main river system in this region. Through this river the sweet water of mountain springs used to flow taking it to the sea through the Sunderbans. After the establishment of Carew Sugar Mills, the supply of sweet water was terminated. Therefore, the increased tidal surges led to the excess of saltwater in Bhabadaha along with other north-western region. After 1940, farmers lost their harvest to salinity. In the 1950s, the situation became worse, the scarcity of food turned into a famine.
In this context, World Bank initiated the Krug Mission in 1954. To stop the flooding and prevent further intrusion of salinity, they prescribed the formula of building dam and installing polder system. According to their recommendations, embankment dams and sluice gates were erected to disconnect most of the rivers of Jessore and Khulna from the floodplains. By 1967, this region was divided into 37 polder areas with 1556 kilometers of embankment dams and 282 sluice gates.
Temporarily, this system prevented the salinity intrusion of farmlands in the area. During the successive years, for a decade, people were able to bring home their harvest again. In the long run, all went in vein. The alluvial deposition stopped in the floodplains; instead tidal waves from the sea were bringing marine sediment to the river basin. This is how water drainage systems were blocked. Hence, begins the history of water stagnation.
In 1961, on the 24 number polder area, Bhabadaha gate was constructed. Around that time, local left leaders involved in peasant movement protested against building a sluice gate filling up the river. Among them were Bishtu Chatterjee, Botu Datta and Kamakhya Roy Chowdhury. But, their concerns were not counted. Ordinary people did not realise the long term consequences. During the 1970s, the ecological signs of water stagnation were becoming visible. People began to feel the weight of the problem. In 1980–81, Amulya Ratan Biswas and other leaders called people to become vocal about the problem of water stagnation in Bhabadaha. They are the early torchbearers of this movement. The current generation of Bhabadaha activists inherited their legacy, continuing the struggle today.
New Age: The organisers of this movement are suggesting that the crisis of water stagnation is related to the destruction of river system in the region. Could you elaborate on it?
Iqbal Kabir Jahid: There are two aspects of this movement: one is the unity of affected farmers’ and conscious effort to mobilise for the cause. There is another thing too, humanity. On April 30, 1982, a meeting was held in Bhabadaha gate. Along with Amal Sen, Amulya Ratan Biswas, former parliamentary member Shah Hadiuzzaman and Baidyanath Biswas, many other political leaders of different parties were present as comrades in the meeting. Before the meeting, with the invitation from the local organisers, renowned engineer from this region, Sheikh Shahidullah came to inspect the area. Once the problem of water stagnation became persistent, on June 24, 1998, Bhabadaha Convention was held by 17 farmers’ organisations in the Jessore district council auditorium. Engineer Shahidullah, professor Ainun Nishat, Shapan Adnan and Jessore’s leftist political leaders participated in the convention. A leader of the Bhabadaha Pani Nishkashan Sangram Committee (Bhabadaha Water Management Committee), Gazi Abdul Hamid presented the key note paper at the convention. From the convention, the construction of flood retention point was proposed as a solution to the crisis. Within a short time, another meeting was held in the chamber of the district councilor, in which the minister for water resources Abdur Razzaq was present. Here, the proposed solution was approved in the name of tidal river management project. From this point on, the movement got a specific direction.
As we dig deeper into the problem, look more closely for the origin and any solution to the problem, the ecological crisis the people of north-western region are faced with, we realise, it is tied to the destruction of the rivers. The slow decay of the Bhairab, the Kobadak, the Mukteshwari, the Betna — all problems are connected in one thread. Many organisers of this movement got involved in researching the current state of the rivers. And, they found the building of railway in Bengal, establishing Carew Sugar Mills, erection of the Farakka Barage on Padma — all contributed to the killing of the rivers and thus disrupting natural water system in the region.
New Age: It has been nearly four decades since the beginning of the movement in early ’80s. Why do you think the problem still persists?
Iqbal Kabir Jahid: From organising in neighbouring villages to holding protest rallies, sit-ins, even road bloackades with protesters in shrouds— people have done it all to get a relief from the situation. Even though, in principle the demands were accepted, the reality was different. The key problem with Bangladesh Water Development Board and foreign donors’ prescriptions is that they leave a flaw while implementing a solution. In the long run, that flawed system becomes the origin of a new problem. People’s experience suggests that the Bhabadaha crisis is like a goose that lays gold eggs. If the problem is solved, the goose would die.
There is temporary relief from the implementation of tidal river management. Like in bill Kukshiya, its bed rose from silt deposition and diminished the depth of the river. However, some problems were kept alive. So, people of Kapaliya later refused to accept the tidal river management as a solution. But, there is not much you can do, other than the tidal river management. Therefore, it is important to give people what was promised to them. Vested interests had emerged connected with the Water Development Board. Along came the unscrupulous contractors and corrupt bureaucrats. Different factions of ruling party elites are also involved. For common people to stand against this corrupt circle is indeed difficult.
New Age: People in these areas are still in a difficult situation due to decades of flawed government policies or inefficiencies in implementations of tidal river management projects. What is the answer to this historic crisis in the region?
Iqbal Kabir Jahid: In some cases, the movement has seen success. It is because of our all-out effort that the government has taken up the Kobadak project. The tidal river management project in Pakhimara beel of the Kobadak helped the river regain its depth; also there was no water stagnation in the river basin. Farmers produced their golden crops again. People of Bhabadaho got relief from water stagnation from the TRM in west Khushiya.
But, after the cancellation of the TRM project in bill Kapaliya, the situation has aggravated again. It was cancelled in 2012. The longstanding movement forced the government to take a river training and dredging project to link the Padma-Mathabhanga with Bhairab. There is a possibility that the government would also take up programmes to manage the sediments brought along with the tide, which might solve the problem permanently. However, government programmes are not timely and are scattered.
In general, the government has taken up a policy to save rivers; however, in the case of Bhabadaha they are going against their own policy, killing rivers.
There is no sign that the government has any plans to rehabilitate the affected people. Unless, the government initiate the tidal river management in Kapaliya beel before the next Maghi Purnima (winter full moon), that is on Jaunary 31, 2018, the people will face another catastrophe. Farmers, fishermen, farm labourers, widows, differently abled, old people and children under the tidal river management project area have to be ensured of food and health security. Including restoration of Amdanga canal, all the rivers and canals need to be reclaimed from illegal occupiers. All ways for water drainage must be open. To receive the tidal water, the Bhairab has to be connected with the Mukteshwari.