By S. Chandrasekharan
‘A River is a living entity, a legal person and a juristic person’.
So said the Bangladesh High Court Bench in a petition filed by the Human Rights and Peace on the degradation of Turag River. It is a remarkable judgement and a landmark one that would apply not only to Bangladesh but to all regions in this part of the World where people are dependent on the rivers for their livelihood and well-being.
Bangladesh is a riverine country and most of the population except in the hill region of Chittagong Hill Tracts are dependent on the rivers for their sustenance.
There are over 700 rivers in the country with a total length of over 24,000 Kilometers of waterways.
Many of these rivers for want of attention and deliberate negligence have been degraded by encroachment, misuse, illegal and unplanned settlements by criminal gangs, politicians and even bureaucrats thus striking at the very heart of Bangladesh’s existence. Many of demarcation pillars in the dry areas and in river terraces have been demolished by encroachers and building structures have come up on the areas meant to protect the rivers.
Environmentalists have observed that over 450 of the 700 rivers in Bangladesh need immediate attention if the general populace is to be protected from harm and pollution.
The situation is said to be critical in some of the rivers like Buriganga passing through Dhaka, Shitalakkhya, Dhaleswar, Turag and Balu.
The Turag river in particular has been reduced to a trickle of a water body, because of illegal structures on the banks and river terraces and the National Commission which had been entrusted with the protection of the rivers were seen to be helpless and they think that their duty is to investigate and report to the Government.
It was this helplessness and inadequate attention of the National body that was brought to the notice of a bench of the Dhaka High Court on the condition of the Turag River.
The High Court Bench consisting of Justice Moyuneel Islam Chowdhury and Justice Ashraful Kamal declared in the judgement that rivers have an identity and they need protection. They have come down heavily on the encroachers and have now issued guidelines for protecting the rivers. They also observed that the National River Protection Commission should be empowered to take action suo motu and not just report to Government and await orders.
This historic landmark judgement has made the following points to ensure that the Rivers are protected. These include-
- The vital role the rivers play in sustaining human habitation needs no reiteration and it is time that strong action is taken against criminal syndicates who indulge in river grabbing.
- Rivers are living entities. A River is a legal person, a juristic person and has the right to protect its rights.
- The State must act as the trustee of all rivers, hills, sea beaches, canals, beels and other water bodies. The National River Protection Commission will remain as the body bound to protect them.
- The National River Protection Commission will therefore have to be empowered to take effective action against ‘river grabbers’.
- The River encroachers should not be allowed to contest in any elections or get bank loans.
- The Government should make a list of all the land grabbers and expose them in public. (Name them and Shame them!)
Soon after the issue of the judgement on 31st January, the Government of Bangladesh has suddenly woken up to the serious situation of the degradation of rivers and the concerned Government institutions have started demolishing a large number of structures along the river banks in the Buri Ganga river in Dhaka. It may soon spread to other areas. The structures that were demolished so far belonged to leading politicians, criminal syndicates and even bureaucrats.
Since a large number of influential persons are involved in the construction of the illegal structures there could be attempts by them to find some way to stop the demolition campaign!
It is hoped that the High Court will continue to be vigilant and prevent any let up in the demolition of the structures on the river banks that have begun on the basis of Court’s directives.