Disappearing urban water bodies  

Disappearing urban water bodies   

The Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) on April 02 last got yet another year's time for demolition of its 15-storey headquarters built on the sprawling Hatirjheel, located at the centre of the capital city. The Appellate Division of the country's Supreme Court granted the additional time following a plea from the BGMEA.

When the High Court Division in 2011 ordered the removal of the structure describing the BGMEA HQs as 'cancer' on the Hatijheel Beautification project, most people, environmentalists in particular, had expressed their satisfaction. They welcomed the HC verdict since the tall building was built violating the law concerning the protection of water bodies.

However, the verdict did stir up surprise among some people, for two former heads of government did take part in the functions marking the foundation stone-laying and the inauguration of the BGMEA building.

When the country's highest court has ordered demolition of a landmark structure built illegally on a water body, hundreds of structures have either been built or being constructed occupying other water bodies in and around Dhaka. There are a number of laws, including the 'Open Space and Wetland Conservation Act 2000 and the 'Urban Water Body Protection Law, 2001' that do prohibit construction of structures by grabbing water bodies and wet land. Yet such construction has been going on unabatedly.

The grabbing of a large water body named Bhashanteker Beel (Shaheen Lake) that once covered an area running between the Turag River and the city's KachuKhet Bazaar is a glaring example. Scores of structures have sprung up in recent years by filling up part of the water body. It is now more of a free-for-all situation. Residential and commercial buildings, petrol pump have been built and one or two housing projects are also in operation. The government agencies, including police, Rajdhani Unnyan Kartipakkha (Rajuk) and National Housing Authority (NHA), are also not lagging behind. The Rajuk has filled up a large area of the beel to extend the Uttara Residential Township. The NHA has a plan to build a few multi-storied residential buildings there. The police has occupied a part of the water body and built a huge complex there.

The large water body being under multi-pronged attack, it is feared, might be lost totally within next two to three years.

But the loss of this particular water body, in likelihood, would only bring disaster for not only the people who are filling it up but also for at least two to three million people living in greater Mirpur and Cantonment area. Most part of waste and rain water flows into this beel. With this water bodies filled up, where will this water go?

Waste and rain water now passes through a narrow natural stream. But there is every possibility that stream, too, will be lost to grabbers soon. If that happens, the problem of water-logging in Mirpur area would aggravate further during the rainy season.

The situation was not like this even seven to eight years back. The construction of a link road through the heart of the water body did trigger all the troubles. The water body, according to relevant law, should have been khas land. How could it become private land overnight?  That remains a mystery. Scores of signboards are now seen along the road linking Matikata and Mirpur DOHS.

The situation was different in the case of Hatirjheel. There were grabbers there too, but the authorities evicted them during the jheel beautification programme. 

The Bhasanteker Beel being a large water body should have been protected in accordance with the provisions of the Urban Water Body Protection Act, 2001. But that has not happened. When government agencies fill up water body and construct buildings, it is hard to expect enforcement of the relevant law/laws.

Moreover, none knows for sure who would enforce the laws that protect water bodies or wetlands. In the relevant laws, some government agencies surely have been made responsible for their enforcement. But those agencies are not visible on the spots where flagrant violation of these laws has been taking place.

It is not possible for an individual citizen or a conscious lawyer to file Public Interest Litigation (PIL) writs all the time. The officials of the relevant government agencies are being paid every month from the public exchequer to protect the interest of the people and ensure enforcement of the laws. The government after a regular gap enhances the pay package of public servants. But, in exchange, the common people get nothing.

Laws in Bangladesh are aplenty. Parliament does adopt a few pieces of legislation every time it convenes a session. But it hardly reviews the effectiveness of the laws and the level of their enforcement. Had there been proper enforcement of the laws, the people would not have much to complain about. 

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