THE government appears to have done very little about the protection of rivers from encroachment and pollution, letting the rivers die slowly. The illegal grabbing of river land and indiscriminate disposal of industrial and municipal wastes into the rivers are prime reasons for the sorry state of the rivers, not only the ones that flow around the capital but also the others that flow across the country. It is worrying that the 50-kilometre Balu that flows from Gazipur to Narayanganj through the eastern part of the capital, as New Age reported on Monday, is in peril because of massive encroachment on river land for projects in both the private and the public sector. People living on the banks of the river say that the river, which once was home to a large variety of fish and an important route for the transport of farm produces and other goods to Dhaka, has now become a threat to public health because of the high intensity of pollution. People living along the river are reported to suffer from multiple water-borne diseases. An irresponsible disposal of municipal and industrial wastes into the river, along with rampant encroachment, has, as the National River Conservation Commission says, rendered the river biologically dead.
A similar worrying picture of encroachment on the River Ichhamati, which runs through Pabna, made the headline on Sunday when the High Court issued a rule asking why the 84-kilometre river would not be declared ecologically critical as much of the river now remains grabbed. A majority of the rivers in the country are faced with a similar danger. In June 2019, the commission published a partial list of 29,459 grabbers of rivers — banks, foreshores and the river proper — in 41 districts. In publishing the list, the commission rightly observed that the whole affair of river land occupation has so far been celebrations of power and corruption, involving powerful quarters who have enjoyed political and moneyed clout. Episodic eviction drives by the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority, the Water Development Board and other agencies were held against grabbers of both the Balu and the Ichhamati in 2019, but once the drives were over, most of the grabbers returned to the site, thus foiling the intended impact of the eviction.
The government, under the circumstances, must take a holistic approach to save the rivers across the country from encroachment and pollution. In so doing, it must have an exhaustive list of all entities, public and private, that have encroached on the rivers and draw up a comprehensive plan to reclaim the rivers. Different agencies in the past conducted eviction drives and the court issued many important directives such as asking the government to criminalise river encroachment and disqualify grabbers from getting bank loans and participating in elections, yet the encroachment on and pollution of the rivers have remained to be major challenges in saving the rivers. It is high time the government drew an inclusive plan and effectively executed it.
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