37,000 River Grabbers: NRCC decision to withhold names draws flak
The National River Conservation Commission has decided not to publish a list of 37,000 new encroachers of 48 rivers and the environment activists say protecting their identities is tantamount to siding with the grabbers.
The decision was made at a meeting of the commission on December 15 last year.
The meeting minutes say those who made the list did not follow the British-era Cadastral Survey (CS), which as per a High Court order, should be followed while demarcating rivers.
That's why making public the names of encroachers and the number of structures may cause legal and administrative complications, added the minutes.
The list was made under a Tk 34 crore project to come up with a study that would also include descriptions of biodiversity, erosion and river health. The Project to Survey 48 Rivers was taken up in 2017 and it ended in December 2022.
Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, told The Daily Star that the commission apparently took the side of the encroachers by protecting their identities.
Contacted, Manjur Ahmed Chowdhury, chairman of the National River Conservation Commission (NRCC), said those who did the study were supposed to follow the CS to prepare the list which would have required colossal work. But they chose the rather easy way of following the Water Act-2013 and Port Act-1908.
"They did not even have the CS map and record of rights [khatian] that are required to prove one is an encroacher. Otherwise, the list will fall flat if it is challenged in a court of law. The onus will be on me to prove with documents that the land is part of the river," he said.
He then referred to a High Court order issued by Justice Khairul Haque in 2009 that outlined how to reclaim rivers based on the CS.
"We sent the list [of encroachers] to deputy commissioners across the country and received feedback from three districts. Once we get feedback from all the districts, we will decide what to do next," he added.
Manjur then said the project officials will be investigated and he will see whether any financial irregularities took place.
Project Director Enamul Haque said demarcation in line with the CS, RS (Revisional Survey) and BS (Bangladesh Survey), has not been done on any river of the country.
That's why it is difficult to label anyone as an encroacher in legal terms, he said, adding that the Water Act-2013 and Port Act-1908 were his only options.
"As per these laws, 10 metres from a river bank outside port areas and 50 metres from a river bank in the port areas are part of the river," he said.
However, these laws do not specifically say that structures that are in the areas that fall in the aforesaid criteria are illegal, he added.
Declaring any structure as illegal will only be possible when the rivers are demarcated through a survey by district administrations, he said.
"We did our part. The rest lies with the commission," he added.
Former NRCC chairman Muzibur Rahman Howlader said the study was wonderful. "Had there been goodwill in the commission, it would have considered the list as a baseline to conserve the rivers."
The list was prepared in cooperation with the Water Development Board, Space Research and Remote Sensing Organisation, and the Directorate of Survey, he said, adding that there was no way to dismiss the list.
"By binning the list, the commission is letting the influential encroachers off the hook. There are some encroachers [on the list] whose names we even can't dare to utter."
Rizwana said, "The chairman of a constitutional organisation [NRCC] can't act in a way that benefits the encroachers."
The reasons cited by the commission for not publishing the list are not credible, she said.
"The chairman could say the list is incomplete. If the CS was followed, the list of encroachers would be longer. But that does not mean this list is worthless. If there is a conflict between the CS and Water Act, the commission could have gone to a court, seeking remedy. But it chose to hide the list instead," she added.
This move will make those killing the rivers more ruthless, she said.
Sharif Jamil, general secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon, said withholding the names was a clear stand against the rules, laws and a High Court order that made NRCC the guardian of rivers. The commission should be tearing down the illegal structures instead of protecting the encroachers.