Is a silver-lining emerging in river preservation? One would hope so, with the tannery fulcrum relocated from Hazaribagh and the various other scattered efforts underway to resuscitate our dying rivers. Towering above these efforts may be a judiciary ruling: the Supreme Court giving the country's rivers the same legal rights as human beings. Though that may be too monumental a task for the country to instantly handle, given the social disruption the ruling would immediately have, it is the right move in the right direction if the country is to survive vibrantly. With rivers (and forests, in short, Mother Nature), not enjoying the same basic rights as human beings, citizens cannot hope to have a steady anchor to build their future.
As a precedent, one-hundred countries had signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Water Courses in 1997, which became effective when Vietnam became the 35th country to ratify this Convention more recently. Though this related more to rivers crossing national boundaries, the message to protect all rivers worldwide was clear. The Earth Law Centre in New York proposed a Universal Declaration of River Rights, which Mexico City even invoked in a 2017 case. For both initiatives to come alive in any country, the first step has to be a national law adopting its underlying provision. Our Supreme Court action serves as that first-step for Bangladesh. Follow-ups are crucial to the success of its intents.
Untreated human wastes, factory spews and spillovers, as well as the institutionalised trashing of rivers have all combined to create a pungent present situation when rivers should be seen as Mother Nature's symbiotic relationship with humans instead of its dust-bin. We have not respected that golden rule.
Factories, for example, function largely without regulation or even day-to-day supervision when extracting labour and reaping profits dominate. This is a feature more associated with less developed countries than characterising middle-income country climbers. Why so lies in that very transition itself, from the former to the latter: sudden income sparking the growth of material ownership. One of the beauties of poverty is the relative neglect of material possessions: just making both ends meet consumes all day (and most of the night in many cases), and all income (if any) to look beyond into possessing material goods (where to keep them also poses a structural constraint since the poor in this country are almost wholly homeless or landless). It is with the advent of that extra paisa growing into an extra taka that material possessions enter the picture, from the basics, like clothing, into the more ostentatious cellular phone, extra clothes in the wardrobe, and so forth. In between are all the trappings of modern society: plastic-encased food, beverages, and shopping bags littering our streets, parks, and just about every open space. Material growth begins, with waste eventually finding its way into our rivers. Since a bulk of it is non-biodegradable, like plastic, our rivers begin the suffocation that today plagues the world.
Just as factories dot the transformation from traditional, mostly rural, society into an industrial urban counterpart, waste-growth has an intimate relationship with factory-growth. The first and second industrial revolutions produced so much air pollution (the former through factory smoke, the latter through automobile emissions), that regulatory controls have now become a part of life in developed countries over a long phase of trials and errors. That phase did not have all the multilateral safeguards that haunt modern-day late-industrialising countries today. Labour rights, environmental considerations, and human rights recognition hardly rippled across the industrial world before, but rock new entrants today, with damaging consequences.
Such a time-based hiatus matters in transitional countries like Bangladesh. They must industrialise (to maximise their own material goals), just to survive, but can they also pay attention to distinguishing the sustainable from the pack? That long-term transformation of consciousness turning into legislations in today's developed countries cannot be expected, at least efficiently, from transitional cases today. Therefore, what happens when chemicals get dumped into rivers or what these chemicals do to the fish are either unknown or of less priority than the immediately available material possessions, even in wishful thinking form. The net result has been a large-scale deterioration in the health of our rivers: some have become dead (no fish can survive), or the source of so much pollution that we, the key consumer in any food-chain, have jeopardised our very own health in the process: water gets contaminated whether from the rivers or reservoirs; and stained fish carry ingredients not at all compatible with our body components and functions into our system.
If that does not underscore how the lives of both humans and rivers have always been so inter-related, then we might be missing a serious component in our sustainable equation. Thus the Supreme Court decision sought to correct, or at least pave the way towards long-term solution. Yet, why this may be easier said than done may boil down to the evolution of reality. Bangladesh, with particularly Dhaka under the spotlight, has become so congested that many homeless people, particularly urban migrants, end up living in or around rivers: either in boats, or huts built upon river-banks. The river, after all, is their one-stop shop for toilet releases, bathing, even drinking water. Depriving them of those accesses could become chaotic, unless preparatory work is done, with building alternative shelters, and water-supplies being among the foremost of those concerns. In a fiscal year when budgetary controls suddenly play a big part, that is an expensive thought, let alone undertaking.
Constructive self-help can help us advance the sustenance spirit. In a land fabled for its rivers, our time has come, perhaps for one final time, to revitalise that identity. Clearing polluted rivers is a start, to which urban waste-disposal facilities must play an enormous part. Included in this preservative exercise are all necessary regulations, for households and factories, private dwellings and public spaces, sewage and trash-collection, as well as all vehicular and human actions corroding the environment (from minor gestures like throat-clearing on sidewalks to animal sacrifice in backyards). Controlling this supply-line is fundamental to overall cure.
Curative measures must then pick up from such cleansing efforts. This is where rivers must be revitalised, not just through creating healthy fish cultivation environments, but also restoring organic life. Planting trees along embankments is an inexpensive initiative any layman can take. More than restoring the health of the soil, and thereby the atmosphere, tree-linings go a long way to prevent soil erosion, provide shade, and most of all, chip in to reversing carbon suffocation. Indeed, by soaking up carbon-dioxide, trees go a long way to halt climate-change apprehensions. Scientists at ETH-Zurich estimate that one-quarter of the carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere, an overwhelming of which was released after the industrial revolution began two-and-a-half-centuries ago, could be dissolved (Matt McGrath, "Climate change: Trees 'most effective solution' for warming," BBC News, July 4, 2019).
Rivers have always been the lifeline of the country. Yet, never has so much hung in the air as its sustenance now. If the Supreme Court's resuscitation ruling is taken for what it is meant to be, our rivers breathing new life would regenerate the lives of more than 160 million people. That has got to have a global impact somewhere, somehow.