Clipping the wings of river encroachers

Published: February 06, 2019 21:57:31 | Updated: February 08, 2019 22:18:33

The High Court  last Sunday, in a most comprehensive  landmark judgment,  ordered a  stringent  set  of measures against the river  grabbers in the country. Demonstrating   judicial activism  for public good, the court has  directed the Election Commission to  debar  individuals  'accused' of encroaching on rivers from contesting  any election including the parliamentary one. Equally forceful but with a wider implication is a directive to Bangladesh Bank not to  provide any loan to  river  grabbers. Almost all of the 450 rivers  of  Bangladesh   have been  encroached  upon in degrees, but none more  than the five  dying rivers  of Dhaka -- Buriganga, Balu, Turag, Shitalakkhya and Dhaleshwari which were once the lifeline of the city.

In  breach of a 2009 landmark HC (High Court) judgment  ordering  measures like   demolition  of  illegal structures along  and  into   rivers   and  demarcation  of   river boundaries, a  wicked   ploy was applied  to circumvent full compliance: Demarcation pillars were pitched  along the riverbanks during the lean flow of the dry season  excluding    2,500 acres of  foreshores and wetlands of the five rivers  to  extend a sway  on   the waterline  in the monsoons. Eviction efforts in fits and starts floundered on the rock of evictees returning to occupy   river space hot on the heels of eviction.

Protection and conservation of rivers is key to rejuvenating environment for good health, navigation, investment, marketing and economic activities. The harsher measures ordained by the HC  to protect  rivers  require an amendment  to the National  River Protection Commission (NRPC) Act 2013 with enabling  provisions   for   punishment. It is not surprising  that the current NRPC act has proved  toothless  against the machinations  of   individuals   who work through powerful nexus. Legislation alone, however, cannot keep the greedy land grabbers at bay. Political will, social mobilisation for resistance and application of a law with teeth can help end the impunity culture. In  order for   the Election  Commission and  the  Central Bank  not to allow even persons  'accused'  of  river encroachment  to contest election and receive bank loans  would  necessitate a special provision. An 'accused' may enter a plea that  until conviction, he or she  can't be barred  from candidacy  or bank loan. The point is speculative at this stage until the amendment is tabled  on the floor of the House  triggering a scrutiny  including   in public domain. However, the  emphasis  on  prospective denial of  bank loans to the offenders tends  to   hit  the nail on its  head  because  land grabbers  are  eager to  take   bank loans  aiming  to    spend  it  in so-called   real estate (read ill-gotten estate!) development projects. Then they will  probably account for    more non-performing loans (NPLs). Thus, with loan default  and  the  proposed  ante-dote  of a ban on  bank  lending   to   river encroachers  the space  should shrink  for those  who  nurse political ambition  riding a rough-shod  on  society.

What  is  pivotal  to the whole  exercise is  the release of a list of those  who  have encroached  on water bodies  and  built illegal constructions  thereon. It  must be updated and  made public  to  expose them  and  then  after  a thorough   investigation  hold  the guilty  to account. It is imperative  to  develop  a digital data base  of the country's  water bodies  through  satellite  imageries  and  on-ground   corroboration. Only  then  will the government  with the help of a  task force comprising  experts in public and private sectors be able  to earmark  the  total  areas under  illegal occupation  and  proceed to restore them  to state control.  The Election Commission and the Bangladesh Bank need updated lists of encroachers of water bodies  to enforce the bans.  

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