Once, Khulna city was blessed with the flowing waters of over 50 canals.
Over half of those waterbodies are gone now. And the remaining 22 are struggling for survival, due to encroachment, mindless dumping of waste and sheer negligence of the authorities concerned.
The waterbodies, which were once so lively with fresh water flow and aquatic biodiversity, have lost all its life saving matters, including stream and water quality.
Khulna City Corporation has got the mandate to protect the canals but the sorry state the canals are in now, give no reflection that KCC has done its part. Indifference and finger-pointing of the district administration and development authority is pushing the reservoirs to death throes.
A section of influential people with the assistance of government officials have erected structures, encroaching upon the canals, alleged locals. They said the grabbers have already built over a hundred structures, including business establishments and residences.
Of the canals, Nirala, Mohirbari, Labonchhara, Mandar, Khudier, Khetrokhali, Nabinagar, Gallamari (north), Batkamari, Arongghata, Deana Chowdhury khal, Bastuhara, Taltola, Kaderer khal, Chorichhara, Kholabaria, Narkelbaria, Harintana, Motiakhali, Mohirbari and Mathabhanga are facing an existential threat.
Last week, this correspondent visited at least seven canals in the city. Structures and construction materials surrounding the waterbodies and waste being dumped on those have not only narrowed the channels, but also turned some of them into clogged-up drains.
Of them, Mohirbari canal used to be in Tutpara area. But this newspaper was unable to trace it. After talking to residents, it was found that the once-vibrant waterbody has been lost to urban sprawl.
Idirs Ali, 72, a local, said, “Over the decade, influential people have continued to encroach upon it… Mohirbari canal died in front of my eyes.”
Known as the largest fresh water reservoir of KCC, Mayur Nadi used to flow from Daulatpur to Alutola. Now, the 12-km waterbody lies neglected with rotten aquatic plants and waste.
In 2016, KCC apparently spent Tk 5.78 crore for its maintenance but looking at this vital reservoir's present condition, one may wonder how much of it was actually carried out.
Uttam Mandal, a resident of Boyra beside the canal, said, “There was a time when we used its water regularly. But it has become polluted due to lack of maintenance. The water now emits bad odour.”
“We heard that maintenance work was done on the canal… take a look yourself,” he told this correspondent, adding, “Do you see sign of any preservation?”
Advocate Babul Hawlader, Khulna divisional coordinator of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (Bapa), said, “In 2009, KCC published a list of 81 canal grabbers… but that was it. No action was taken against them.”
“Utilising the opportunity, grabbers started erecting buildings on the reservoirs,” he said. “The city corporation also initiated a drive in 2009 to clean around 2,187 drains, but suspended the work in February 2010,” he claimed.
Sheikh Ashrafuzzaman, secretary general of Greater Khulna Unnayan Sangram Samannay Committee, said, “Due to encroachment and lack of proper drainage system, waterlogging has become a major problem in the city.”
“For the last 15 years, we have been demanding that the city corporation take steps to free the canals from grabbers. We even took position in front of the KCC office on January 22 this year and submitted a memorandum to the mayor,” he added.
Contacted, Nuruzzaman Talukdar, estate officer of KCC, said KCC had formed a monitoring committee and a sub-committee to list the canals. “The sub-committee listed around 47 canals crisscrossing the city and its adjacent areas. Of them, 31 are under KCC areas,” he said.
Khulna District Administration is the custodian of these canals and KCC works as a supervisor, he claimed.
Contacted, a top official of the administration said it is KCC's responsibility to maintain and preserve the waterbodies. “We assist the city corporation during demarcation or eviction drives. But, KCC has to take the initiative first,” he said.
Newly-elected KCC Mayor Talukder Abdul Khaleque told The Daily Star that recovering canals from grabbers was part of his election manifesto. “We will start a drive soon to recover the remaining 22 canals after demarcating them,” he said. “We will punish the grabbers, regardless of who they are.”
“After taking charge, I took a Tk 843 crore project to solve waterlogging and free the canals,” he added.
The mayor alleged that the Khulna Development Authority (KDA) is also responsible for maintaining the canals, but they do not conduct drives in this regard.
Seeking anonymity, a KDA official said, “It's not our job to conduct eviction drives to free the canals. It's city corporation's responsibility.”
However, rights activist Sheikh Ashrafuzzaman argued that KDA is not performing its duties. “There are quite a few canals flowing through KDA areas, which are being grabbed. They should work with the city corporation to free those.”
NO COMMITTEE FORMED IN 10YRS
In the last ten years, no committee has been formed to recover the canals.
On July 5, 2009, the then KCC mayor formed a 15-member committee with ward councillor Shahid Iqbal Bithar as its convener. The list of canal grabbers was prepared then.
But only a few days after the start of the drive, criminals gunned down Bithar on July 11, 2009, what locals claim, due to the drive.
Another committee was formed on January 5, 2011, which existed only on papers.