Since his childhood Morom Ahmed, 65, had known Gugalicherra as a river, but last year, much to his astonishment, he heard that the river was classified as a stagnant water body and leased out for fish farming.
"In our childhood we saw Gugalicherra as a flowing river," he told this correspondent when he visited the riverside yesterday to see how fish farming was going on in the river.
According to law, a river cannot be rented or leased out. So the Moulvibazar district administration changed the class of Gugalicherra in documents and labelled it as a "stagnant water body" to make it legally eligible for leasing.
This illegal practice, also seen elsewhere in the country, slowly sends the rivers to their death because the lessee usually constructs barricades in the river channel to farm fish, hampering the natural flow, and uses fertilisers for the purpose, damaging the water quality.
With the call to prevent Gugalicherra from dying out, Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (Bapa) and Water Keeper Bangladesh organised a protest rally in Juri Upazila yesterday.
Abdul Karim Kim, general secretary of Bapa's Sylhet unit, said corrupt administrations changed the class of a river so as to lease it out to local political leaders for fish farming in many places in Bangladesh. Gugalicherra was leased early last year, he added.
Local fishermen also protested the leasing because they cannot fish there -- a river becomes a private property when classified as a "stagnant water body".
Gugalicherra originates in India's Assam state and flows to Hakaluki Haor through Kulaura and Juri upazilas.
The lessee, Akddish Ali, president of Pubali Matsyajibi Samity, said, "I leased in Gugalicherra from the government. Last year, we could not catch fish. Local people prevented us from fishing this year as well."
Expressing his frustration, he said, "I'm financially hurt. I have submitted a written complaint to the deputy commissioner (DC) against local fishermen.”
Juri Upazila Parishad Chairman Gulshan Ara Chowdhury said she knew about Akddish Ali leasing the river and raised the issue in different meetings.
This case is a unique example of "administrative corruption" in Bangladesh, said Sharif Jamil, coordinator of Water Keeper Bangladesh. "It shows how corrupt officials make money by making illegal things legal on paper."
He said legal action should be taken against the district administration. "How can it be a reflection of the government's will to protect our rivers?"
The chief guest at the rally, Sharmin Murshed, member of the National River Commission, demanded immediate steps to salvage Gugalicherra.
Moulvibazar Deputy Commissioner Tofael Islam said he was transferred to the district only a few days back, hence unable to talk about the leasing without seeing documents.