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     Volume 8 Issue 73 | June 12, 2009 |

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Owning Half a River

Morshed Ali Khan

“I have British and Pakistani parchas for this land," said Rafiq Mia firmly, showing a large stretch of the river Buriganga. "My name is even in the latest Bangladeshi survey, I am the genuine owner of this land," he said in his Dhakaiya accent without the blink of an eye.

"But this is the river Buriganga," said a young man pointing at the stretch of murky water of the river.

"Oh no," reacted Rafiq with a shriek raising his hand, " The river is in fact about 200 metres away in the middle of this waterway!"

In fact Rafiq Mia from Moddherchar was not entirely lying. He inherited some land from his forefathers at a time when the flow of the river Buriganga was not where it is today. The river changed its course over the last 70 years but official records have never been updated. During the recent Bangladesh Survey, the surveyors have legitimised his claim for the river on the basis of the British and Pakistani parchas. Equipped with the parchas that his forefathers had left behind Rafiq claims the ownership of the river Buriganga, or at least a big chunk of it. Like a good citizen he has paid all taxes (Khazna) for his 1.5 acres of 'land' and there seems no one who could stop him from filling up the river.

Only a week ago Rafiq signed a deal with a sand extraction company that agreed to fill up the area with their volgates (dredging and pumping machines) for a rate of Tk 2 for every square foot of sand filling.

Two kilometres in the upstream from Moddherchar, the Turag turns into the Buriganga just at the bend of Uttarmora at Basila. As the Buriganga rolls down it encircles more than half the city length and flows into the Dhaleshwari at Munshiganj before joining the Meghna at Gazaria. By the time the Buriganga reaches the Dhaleshwari, it has covered nearly 17 kilometres of waterway amid some of the most crammed and hostile urban territories in the world.

While Rafiq Mia stands on the Buriganga with some papers to back him up, there are hundreds like him along the 17-kilometre stretch of the Buriganga, who do not have anything but the river to encroach upon. The saddest part of the river Buriganga lies in Kamrangir Char, where the second channel of the river Buriganga, once a lively waterway encircling the Kamrangir Char peninsula, is on the verge of extinction.

The story goes like this. Lalbagh is politically one of the most important constituencies in the city, where a fierce race for power and supremacy among political godfathers has always been intense. Over the years individuals have become notorious for their involvement in crimes that include murder, extortion and land grabbing. Over a decade when land prices soared to record heights, the second Buriganga channel immediately became a target. Godfathers directly supervised the creation of one plot after the other on the channel. When the BIWTA launched a massive campaign to free the river of encroachment five years ago, godfathers and their sycophants were ready to handle it. To the surprise of the demolition team and the on-duty magistrate river grabbers either produced parchas and other documents claiming ownership or court orders against the government action. Now the BIWTA is gasping for respite from hundreds of court cases related to the Buriganga encroachments, awaiting trials for years.

Belayet Mia from Barisal owns a piece of land in Kamrangir Char where he has lived for nearly 25 years. He says the second Buriganga second channel was a blessing for the people of the area.

"But as soon as the mouth of the channel on the Rayer Bazar side was filled up by Sikdar Medical College an unofficial decree was passed to grab the river, " Belayet says.

"The government should immediately announce that even if someone owns a part of the river, the person cannot fill it up or construct anything there because it is forbidden and punishable under the wetland protection act to fill up any water body," Belayet says.

The entirety of the river Buriganga is under threat. In Waaspur, across Basila, a real estate developer has embarked on a housing project on the river that he proudly calls "Titanic Housing".

While encroachment of the river is a major problem, pollution in the river Buriganga, especially in the lean period when flow is totally cut off in the confluence of the river Jamuna, takes the worst possible turn. Millions of gallons of highly toxic wastes released by over 7,000 industrial units, 75 percent of the city's raw sewage and hundreds of tons of solid wastes, are dumped into the Buriganga every day. From the first day flow in the river water is cut off, which usually happens sometime in September or early October, the huge volume of wastes start to accumulate in water of the river. Within a month the river resembles a huge gutter with pitch-black toxic water in it. Stench in it becomes increasingly unbearable as the lean period continues.

Millions of people living along the river are the worst sufferers of this mindless pollution. Unable to even touch the water, women in areas, especially outside the purview of Dhaka WASA water supply, pass days without washing. In Waaspur, Shoalmachi, Looterchar, Jhaochar, Moddherchar, Kholamora, Jinjira and parts of Kamrangir Char, throughout the dry season most household tube wells become dry as the underground water level falls drastically. Millions living by the Buriganga become so helpless as they are denied access to the river as well as to their own water supply.

Din Islam from Waaspur also a breeder of cages birds, says the whole economy of the area is dangerously affected by the pollution. "We are really passing hard times. Water is our first and utmost problem the river becomes a gutter and the wells are dry for most part of the year," he says.

"I can tell you if we can clean up the river Buriganga we can produce enough fish here to earn twice the amount of money in foreign currency than the tanneries earn," Islam says.

As Islam spoke sitting at the small landing station in Waaspur, a group of people arrived there with a long measurement tape. They were potential land buyers. Soon one end of the tape was stretched into the river by about 25 feet. A man stood in waist-deep water holding the end of the tape, while several others checked parchas and other documents again and again.

The seller and the owner of the land showed all documents including British, Pakistani and Bangladesh parchas and said, "In fact my documents clearly shows that I own half of the river."