THE reclamation of river land grabbed by people having political and moneyed clout appears to have been a sorry tale of efforts in that the process, which has all along been inexcusably slow, could not permanently head off illegal river grab, officials responsible for the reclamation apparently coming to have played into the hands of vested interests and a huge amount of money having been spent with virtually no meaningful outcome. Only a third of the grabbers could be evicted from river land in drives that spanned more than a year while many of the grabbers have laid their hands, as a National River Conservation Commission report shows, on the river land again a few months after the eviction. The agencies — the district administration and the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority — could evict 18,579 out of a total of 57,390 grabbers that the National River Conservation Commission identified in September 2019 based on lists sent in by the district administration. The Inland Water Transport Authority spent Tk 15 million in drives spanning 15 months to free rivers around the capital Dhaka from occupation, but there have been allegations that some powerful quarters have grabbed the river land again in recent times.
The agencies could evict no grabbers of the River Meghna, for which donors refused to fund the construction of a water treatment plant of the Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority at Gandharbapur involving Tk 81.51 billion. Surveys that green campaigners conducted show that the district administration, the Directorate of Land Records and Survey, the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority and three port authorities have not demarcated an estimated 700 rivers properly. A River and Delta Research Centre survey, made public in the past week, says that 1,423 pillars in Dhaka have been installed in wrong places in river demarcation by the Inland Water Transport Authority to favour grabbers. The Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh, which works to promote human rights, alleges that many public servants play into the hands of vested interests which not only frustrates the eviction drives but also harms the rule of law. All this has also been an unending tale of waste as the government has put a huge amount of money year after year into such eviction drives, but the drives have not been able to free the rivers from being encroached on and to effectively protect the river land after reclamation. The government should, rather, now go for a holistic approach instead of episodic, piecemeal efforts towards the protection of the rivers and river land under a coordinated scheme involving all the stakeholders.
While the government should take an integrated approach to freeing the rivers from occupation and effectively staving off further occupation some days after the drives, the government must also empower the National River Conservation Commission enough to take to task all perpetrators of river grab, irrespective of their political affiliation. The High Court in February 2019 declared rivers to be ‘living entities’, rendering them as ‘juristic people’ having rights to be legally protected and put the rivers, not usual living entities, under the care of a guardian called the National River Conservation Commission. The government must now ensure the rights of these ‘juristic people’.
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