Rahmat Ali, a landless angler in Sirajganj's Rayganj Upazila, faced 11 cases and spent 39 days in jail about fight over illegal occupation of the upazila's Sonadanga Beel.
"When our beel was being seized, we went to government offices and found 85 bighas of the beel was government's khas land. The grabbers had made fake papers to occupy the land illegally," Rahmat Ali said at a webinar yesterday.
The webinar, titled "Water Policy and Public Rights" was jointly organised by The Daily Star and Nijera Kori. It was supported by ICCO Cooperation. Khushi Kabir, coordinator of Nijera Kori, chaired the programme.
"When we tried to do something about the occupation, they started filing a lot of cases against us anglers," Rahmat Ali added.
Eventually, their collective won. 140 fishermen, against whom cases were filed, won their legal battles and won the right to catch fish from the beel. But they had to expend a lot of their resources, and had to knock on every other door of the court.
Similar experiences were shared by Ayesha Begum from Khulna's Dumuria. "Ever since influential people got a lease of our river [name of river not mentioned], they made a dam here and started polluting the water."
"We grew up catching fish and picking water lilies and vegetables out of the river, but the same water smells too foul for any of that now. We protested over and over and demanded action from the government, but instead we were charged with lawsuits," Ayesha Begum narrated.
Organisers of the also showcased recorded interviews of people from Rangpur and Gaibandha who were victimised in the same way.
"We have a lot of laws to protect our water resources and ensure that every person has the right to use and drink water from rivers, beels, haors etc. But we have no proper management system, we have no equality of rights," said Syeda Rizwana Hasan, director of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA).
"Water rights is one of the basic human rights, per capita availability of water in Bangladesh is much higher than India and Africa; but the actual scenario is vastly different," she continued.
"Some people in our country get more water than needed, while others don't get enough," Rizwana lamented.
During his speech, Dhaka University Professor Tanzimuddin Khan said, if the state wants to give equal water rights to the public, the state should get its fair share from neighboring countries. He also spoke of how political power is misused by land and river grabbers and demanded that they be cut off from their sources of power.
Anisur Rahman, director of Center For Natural Resource Studies, and Samsul Huda, executive director of Association for Land Reform and Development also spoke at the programme and echoed similar sentiments.