Coping with the evil of naked grabbing

Shihab Sarkar | Thursday, 16 September 2021

The increasing speed at which the land, river and water body grabbers are having their field day is highly distressing. Not long ago, syndicates of these unscrupulous people would keep a low profile among people. At least their day-to-day behaviour gave the impression that they were engaged in an act not endorsed by the common people. And that their activities continued to bring sufferings to the innocent members of the public. Those days have been consigned to the domain of memories. Their flaunting of the illegally possessed lands and river shores carried an unmistakable semblance of a sense of guilt. Nowadays, they have thrown to the wind these pretensions. It's because they are now allowed by none other than the different government authorities to grab patches of protected lands and water bodies.

Despite their not being the branded land grabbers, certain government agencies these days are found encroaching on public properties. It reality, they are not doing it forcefully. In most of the cases, the ministries concerned and many other government agencies take the decision to lease out state lands, water bodies and forestlands to the other government entities. They feel little pricks of conscience. This practice has lately deteriorated to an alarming level. As reported by a media outlet recently, a highly responsible ministry has recently decided to lease out 700 acres of protected forestland in Cox's Bazar to the authorities of a vital government institution. Protecting the area is critical to the hazard-free survival of biodiversity and forest ecology on the leased swathe. The materialisation of the lease is being viewed by the environmentalists as a potential threat to the already endangered local flora and fauna. None of the two parties seems to be bothered. In terms of the biodiversity losses and their impact on the area's ecological balance, the leasing of the land could invite various degrees of disasters. The ministry's decision to 'hand over' the large area for constructing a concrete infrastructure has whipped up protests.

A handful of ecology protection platforms are planning to wage a joint movement to force the lessor to cancel its plan. They have also threatened a tough movement. The irony is the matter is set to die down after a number of protest demonstrations like rallies, sit-ins, human chains etc. The ministry is biding time for the green activists' anger to dissipate. The cynical segments of society may have already started visualising the start of the construction of an imposing building, followed by full-scale operation of a vital government office. In spite of lots of other locations, the aspirant office authorities' falling for this biodiversity-rich area defies logic. It has been learnt that the said forest was declared 'protected' in 1935. The Forest Department had been given the charge of supervising the forest area.      

 Apart from the reserved forests, ancestral lands of the indigenous people deep inside an idyllic hilly land are not free of grabbers' claws. Here, the grabbing is generally carried out by unscrupulous individuals. They have their backers, who mostly include local political and social heavyweights.   Perhaps in pursuance of this trend, private rest houses and recreation centres are being planned in the long undisturbed forestlands. On occasions, croplands on forest clearings fall victim to the mainlanders' greed. It's the indigenous peoples living in certain areas for generations, who have to bear the brunt of these encroachments. During the forceful occupation of their plots, one could guess the extent of the indigenous peoples' vulnerability and trauma. In the process of meeting the needs for lucrative lands aimed at building profit-churning installations, hundreds of the native peoples find themselves without shelter. In the process of being evicted, these people lose their homesteads, agro-lands and many types of landed properties.

The right to grab hills and the forests adjacent to them has lately emerged as one enjoyed exclusively by the high-ups and government entities. But in the vast areas of the country, it's the local influential circles which are seen swooping on the public lands. In time, the whole activity assumes the form of an ugly competition. It starts witnessing naked lobbying with local political honchos. The fights for these coveted lands and the mid-river stretches go on for years, until the most powerful among the would-be grabbers is given the ownership. Of the many, the common enterprises include motor launch-builders, shipyards, fertiliser factories and riverside workshops of myriad kinds. The most widely prevailing of the commercial activities on the grabbed river shores is sand lifting. The latter has long been mushrooming along the rivers near Dhaka. The prominent of them are Turag and Shitalakkhya. The sand lifting business has veritably started at a few points in the Turag in the late 1980s. Thanks to the sand-lifters' increasing invincibility, the collection of sands from beneath the river continues unabated. Apparently, the sand-lifters and traders remain above law.

The earlier panoramic view of the Turag at the Aminbazar point and the river's serene banks has long been replaced with distressing views. The common scenarios which distinguish the riverside are now the movements of barges and trawlers. Filled with sands, they are found leaving the makeshift terminals for the far-away construction points along the river; the large and small empty ones return to carry sands on their return trips. Dozens of points showcase these activities making the once high-stream river a centre-point of regional sand business. Thanks to the traders' continued encroachment on the river, some filling its middle parts sporting freshly set up terminals complete with dredging equipment, the Turag offers a strange look. The previous tranquility is long gone and the lush green villages have vanished.  The ugliest of the scenes is the air in the adjacent roads and highways being heavy with flying sands. It is the people commuting on buses who emerge as the worst sufferers. Keeping the moving vehicles' windows shut doesn't help. People, especially those travelling between Dhaka and Savar, have to put up with this ordeal throughout the day.

To speak without mincing words, the fabled River Turag has been made to disappear by the sand-lifters. These activities have long been replicated in many other parts of the country. Almost inevitably, riverbanks of these areas have been turned into barren lands. Farmers cannot grow cash crops on the fields due to the soil being filled with sand. The most terrible impact of sand lifting comes in the form of river erosion. This scourge has prompted many small farmers to shift to areas without rivers. The sand-lifters have, thus, changed the cropping pattern in many parts of the country.

All these comprise unabated endeavours by sand-lifters occurring across the length and breadth of the country. Amid these river grabbing activities, some emerge as incredibly massive and threatening. A lot of them are about to go past the extent of the threatening potential of the Turag grabbers. In an open-secret reality, the ship-building yard being built by grabbing parts of the mighty Meghna is fast emerging as a humiliating affront to the country's river saving campaigns. The massive private venture has been undertaken by encroaching on parts of the Meghna River and a smaller one in the Gajaria area under the Munshiganj district. According to media reports, a vital ministry overseeing the country's rivers and navigational activities has given the owner new shipbuilding contracts. The surprising aspect of giving the go-ahead to the private entity is the stance taken by the Munshiganj district administration and the National River Conservation Commission. Both of them have identified the company as a 'top river grabber' in Munshiganj. This is but one of many such blatant acts of river grabbing occurring across the country. Upon an in-depth appraisal of the grabbing activities throughout the country, the only conclusion these gleeful orgies bring to the fore is the policymakers' unwillingness to act. Time is not far when these naked swoops on the small country's natural resources will start spelling doom one after another for both the voiceless people and the masterminds.      

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