Those days are long gone when the rich and the powerful used to unleash their army of mercenaries, then known as 'lathials', to occupy a piece of land by force.
Such practice of illegally occupying another's property -- especially public property such as rivers, canals and other waterbodies -- by the rich and the powerful are still all too common across the country. Nowadays, they do not need 'lathials', but a few "friends" in high places.
The situation is no different in the city of Khulna, where a six-kilometre-long vital canal called Khudiar Khal, locally known as Khuder Khal, appears to be in the gravest peril and up for grabs.
As if the authorities have deserted it or it has no legal custodian, influential locals are out to destroy it by encroaching on it or by polluting it, locals said.
The destruction of this lifeline of the city has been going on for nearly a decade, without any visible sign of action by the authorities.
About two kilometres of the canal now looks like a barren land, choked by water hyacinth, bushes and shrubs. While at other places, one would have difficulty recognising it as a canal, with numerous structures built on it.
Devoid of fish and other aquatic life, water in the canal, hardly knee to waist-deep, has turned pitch black -- thanks to dumping of effluent by factories in nearby Khalishpur and Daulatpur industrial areas.
Even signs are posted and demarcation fences are erected at many places of the canal, boasting legal ownership.
The locally 'powerful people' and at least eight real estate development firms have built as many as forty structures into the canal that stretches from Boyra to Beel Pabla (near Khulna bypass road) and falls on the Mayur river, the locals said, requesting not to be named.
While talking to this paper, Hafizur Rahman, a farmer in nearby Deyana village, said Khudiar Khal used to be their primary source of water for irrigation, but now its water is too polluted to be used in crop fields.
With at least ten drainage pipes from the industrial areas constantly spewing out toxic liquid into the canal, he said the local farmers now use plastic pipes with small diameters to pump in water for irrigation from ponds or ditches in distant locations.
Nur Islam, another villager, lamented saying that with fresh water streaming in and teeming with fish and other aquatic animals, the canal used to be alive. "Now all that is gone and people cannot even take a walk along its banks due to putrid stench."
Besides, people living in surrounding villages -- Deyana, Rayermahal, Boyra, Bastuhara, Daulatpur, Beel Pabla -- once relied on the canal for transporting goods to and from Khulna city.
"I used to take the canal to get to my paddy field in Pashchim Beel Pabla village," said Nazmul Hassan, a resident of Pabla village under Ward 6 of Khulna City Corporation (KCC).
But over the past 10 to 12 years, the canal has turned into a landfill and a breeding ground for mosquitos as the KCC does not excavate or maintain it, he alleged.
About a decade ago, Khudiar Khal was the only source of fish for many impoverished villagers who still cannot afford to buy fish from markets, said Hafiz Mollah of the same village.
Now the canal is so polluted that cattle or other animals are getting sick from drinking its water, he also said.
Demanding stern action against encroachers and polluters of Khudiar Khal, Sheikh Ashrafuzzaman, secretary general of Greater Khulna Unnayan Sangram Samannay Committee, said residents of Khulna city had been making the demands for years, but to no effect.
All the canals of the city need to be saved and their state closely monitored by the authorities, he also demanded.
In the meantime, on February 10, 2019, three committees formed by Khulna district administration started conducting surveys on endangered waterbodies in KCC. The committees were formed on February 5.
Contacted, Nuruzzaman Talukdar, estate officer of KCC and member secretary of a committee, said They prepared a list in which they identified 460 illegal occupiers and 382 structures on 26 canals in KCC.
He also said they handed over the list to the deputy commissioner of Khulna as the Khulna district administration is the custodian of the canals and KCC only works as an overseer.
A top official of the administration rebutted the claim made by Nuruzzaman and said it is the responsibility of KCC to maintain and preserve waterbodies in Khulna city limits. "We assist the city corporation during demarcation or eviction drives. However, KCC has to take the initiative first."
Contradicting the KCC estate officer's remarks, Talukder Abdul Khaleque, the Khulna city mayor, said the KCC has already started carrying out drives to recover the 26 endangered canals from the clutches of the 460 encroachers mentioned in the list. "Regardless of who they are, we will take action against the grabbers."