An LGED project to excavate a six-kilometre-long and 100-foot-wide channel in the middle of a river -- 15 kilometres long and roughly 600 feet wide -- is causing an outcry from residents of Nabiganj upazila in Habiganj.
Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) in the work order identifies the project as 'New Development of Earthworks for Ara Borak Khal', which, in reality, is a river known to locals as the Eraborak.
A quarter with vested interest invented the fictitious "khal" or canal only to pocket Tk 4.25 crore of public money by preparing the false project of canal re-excavation under 'Small-scale Water Resources Development Project (Phase-2)' of the LGED, alleged locals.
On February 22 this year, the LGED issued a work order in favour of 31 local 'labour contracting societies (LCS)', headed by Kazi Shahed bin Zafar, who has been mentioned in relevant documents as the 'President of LCS Committee for Eraborak Canal Sub-project'.
Asked why the Eraborak river has turned into a canal in the work order, Kazi Shahed bin Zafar said, the government identified it as a canal when it assigned the project to the committee. "We are only implementing government orders."
Although residents of Nabiganj upazila call it Eraborak for its broad curve, the river is formally recorded as the Borak River in land records of 1956 and 1995, said Joynal Abedin, an elderly resident from Uttar Daulatpur village of Aushkandi union in the upazila.
The Borak originates from the Bijna river and diverges into two directions after running through Habiganj and Moulvibazar districts. One branch falls on the Kushiyara river while the other into Berry Beel near Sherpur.
A senior citizen, Mohsin Ahmed, from the same area, said the Eraborak causes immense sufferings to locals in rainy season when it fills up to the brim and to facilitate communications all through the year, the authorities recently decided to build a bridge over the river in the area at a cost of seven crore taka.
A river big as this has been converted into a canal on paper, by local vested interests, including Aushkandi Union Parishad (UP) Chairman Mahibur Rahman Harun, for their personal gain, said Kazi Abdul Basit, chief coordinator of the 'regional committee for the protection of Eraborak river in Aushkandi'.
Corrupt government officials are colluding with these corrupt locals, but the Eraborak river will be saved from their clutch by any means, he also said.
Shihab Ahmed, from Aushkandi village, said that even though as per rules, members of an LCS have to have their residences along the water body that is being excavated, the house of Kazi Shahed bin Zafar (the president of the LCS committee) is five kilometres away from the river.
In their fabricated project, they not only falsely mentioned the Eraborak river as a canal, but also included relatives of the UP chairman in most of the 31 LCSs.
Moreover, instead of excavating 30 feet of the riverbed, as required in the project, they are digging the channel only five to six feet deep.
Locals and activists of the 'regional committee for the protection of Eraborak river in Aushkandi' in numerous rallies and human chains protested against the devious plot to embezzle public funds at the expense of the Eraborak river and the environment, he added.
The earth dug out of the channel is being piled up on both sides of the channel, creating a bottleneck for river current, said Tofazzal Sohel, a member of Khowai River Waterkeeper.
Hence, the excavated channel in the middle of the river will obstruct natural flow of river current during monsoon and will ultimately erode the riverbanks, causing damage to farmlands and houses, he also said.
Abdul Karim Kim, executive member of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolan central committee, said the UP Chairman and all others involved in the destruction of the river need to be brought to book immediately.
In response to the allegations, UP Chairman Mahibur Rahman Harun claimed that despite their intensions to remove silt from the bed of the entire Eraborak river, they had to mention it as a canal in order to comply with project rules under 'Small-scale Water Resources Development Project (Phase-2)' of the LGED.
Besides, the earth excavated will be placed on both sides of the 100-foot channel, as a condition set under the project.
Regarding nepotism in the LCSs, he said his relatives live in all over Aushkandi union and it is normal that some of their names will be in the LCSs.
Mazhar Ibn Mubarak, assistant engineer of LGED's 'Small-scale Water Resources Development Project (Phase-2)' in Habiganj, refused to comment over the matter.
When contacted, Habiganj LGED Executive Engineer Abdul Basir said, "If the project is not people-friendly or if there's a flaw in the design, a report will be sent to rectify it. We will not implement projects that will not benefit the people. The matter is being looked into with highest urgency."
Habiganj Deputy Commissioner Ishrat Jahan said she was not aware of the matter as she joined her new station recently.
National River Conservation Commission Secretary Aminul Islam said they would take necessary steps if a formal complaint is received in this regard.
Ainun Nishat, a renowned water resources and climate change specialist, said when a river is excavated, it has to be done thoroughly, in a planned manner and it would be unproductive if done otherwise.