In the land of dying rivers

In the land of dying rivers

Here, in this development wasteland, rivers don’t live; they merely exist. They exist as relics of their halcyon days when rivers were truly wild, mysterious, free. Or as a side character in their own story, as told through poetry and music. They exist to serve, to nurture, not to inspire imagination. They exist in collective nostalgia. Today, going through eponymous titles like Bibhutibhushan’s Ichhamati, Manik Bandopadhyay’s Padma Nadir Majhi, Adwaita Mallabarman’s Titash Ekti Nadir Naam, Samaresh Basu’s Ganga, or Debesh Roy’s Teesta Parer Brittanta is like walking past a film reel – each river a new negative, a new revelation, but each also a cautionary tale about how nature needs nurturing too, like everything we hold dear.
This is what I tell myself every time I come across a dying or dead river these days. And I wonder how long we can hold on to the image of what rivers once were before the only image that remains of them is a natural has-been, decayed through overuse and neglect.
For many of us, images are a vital part of our relationship with rivers. They hugely influence our perception of how we connect to them beyond all the trade, transport, and agriculture that have bound us through the centuries. When Hemanta Mukherjee, in his song O Nodire, asks: “Say, o river, where is your abode? Is there no end to your journey?” – or “You erode one bank and build another, but what do you do for the bankside people who’ve lost everything?” – it is not curiosity driving these questions, but a deep sense of connection with something we at once feared and felt for. That fear is still there, but with the shifting images and assorted developments, the feeling has all but gone.
Part of the reason why the 2019 High Court verdict that granted rivers the legal status of “living entities” felt so special was because of its potential to reignite this feeling, from one living entity to another. As legal precedents go, this was a “historic” judgement, as pundits then called it. It wasn’t meant to provoke nostalgia for the good old days of undammed, unbridged rivers. It was more rooted in reality, in a vision that development, while inevitable, does not have to come at the cost of rivers. It envisioned a world in which they would live – not just exist – and have the right to protection from pollution and encroachment. “Killing rivers” used to be a metaphorical expression until rivers were granted this status, which made it more literal, with a shock value attached to it.

Mawa Ferry Ghat. Photo: Tanvir Murad Topu

Four years on, that semantic change, and the founding of the National River Conservation Commission as the “guardian” of rivers, remain the only outcomes of this verdict. Far from improving, the state of rivers is getting progressively worse. In hindsight, the significance of the verdict lies less in its extraordinary vision or potential, and more in how extraordinarily it represents the contrasting realities of rivers. Perhaps the judges overestimated our capacity to care, or underestimated the state’s capacity to not care. Perhaps rivers didn’t need legal acceptance in the first place, since as their aliveness has always been clear to those who care. Howsoever you see this verdict today, it is evident that it has failed to prevent what has rightly come to be known as “rivercide”.
Imagine – 90 percent of rivers in Bangladesh are being encroached and polluted today, according to one estimate. More than 43 rivers dried up in just 20 years between 2000 and 2020. Even rivers that became household names through books have not been spared. A quick Google search will tell you: the once-mighty Titash River is now a veritable canal, with many illegally built structures dotting the riverside; the Ichhamati River near Pabna is nearly dead, and only occasionally revived by the onrush of water from the Padma; the sad state of the Teesta River is there for everyone to see. Any residual nostalgia remaining from your days of reading about rivers will soon be gone.
Or think of the Karnaphuli in Chattogram or the Rupsha, a distributary of the fabled Ganges, or Ganga – all poetic names reduced to a harsh, prosaic existence. These rivers, like the ones before them, are being robbed of life, one aquatic species at a time. The same suffocating situation prevails at the Khowai, which flows through Habiganj, or Mayur, which flows through Khulna, or the rivers surrounding Dhaka. Tonnes of household and industrial waste are dumped into these rivers every day, untreated and unchecked, while encroachers, both individuals and institutions, including those run by the state, go about building structures on dried-up lands, pushing further and further beyond the existing demarcation pillars in some cases. In fact, all rivers connecting the cities and metropolises are being exposed to the double whammy of pollution and encroachment. It is not just the rivers that suffer as a result, but also the vast community of farmers, fishers, villagers and other river-dependent people who are going through painful readjustments.
Bangladesh, for all intents and purposes, is the Land of Dying Rivers now. How else would you explain this spectacular fall from grace of this once-agrarian society?
Attempts to control rivers, it has to be admitted, have been there from time immemorial. It was there during the rule of the British, who sought to control the rough waters in Bengal through building road-rail networks. It was there during the rule of Pakistan, which undertook development projects. Their initiatives, in some cases, proved to be disastrous. Indeed, ruling or controlling rivers – just like hills, forests, and seas – has been an enduring pursuit of humanity. In the monsoon, you had encroaching rivers; in the summer, you had a pushback from encroaching men.
But what we are witnessing in present-day Bangladesh is not ruling; it is bullying, and something happening on such a scale that the country can be legitimately credited for creating a unique situation: once a river, NOT always a river!
Over the last few decades, the more the country urbanised, the more it sought to monetise its rivers, in whichever way possible. Likewise, the more its population grew, the more its land came to be viewed as real estate. So its people put unwieldly dams around rivers, hollowed them out in search of sand, canalised and diverted them, constricted their navigation through encroachment, and in many cases, turned them into veritable dumping zones. Anomalies and warnings abound simultaneously. “A dumping zone called Turag river” – a newspaper heading screams, as if to parody the oft-quoted Titash Ekti Nadir Naam. What was once a symbiotic relationship worthy of immortalisation in poetry, music and literature has now turned into an abusive relationship, with 16-crore rudderless people wedged into our sparse landmass, all somehow complicit in our rivers’ slow decay or death. It is a living nightmare, really.
True, there have been attempts, actual and symbolic, to reverse this trend, both by the state and private actors. There is no dearth of policies, regulations and responsible agencies. Eviction and excavation projects to free rivers are routinely heard of. But those attempts are so few, so isolated, and so uncoordinated that any resultant effect fizzles out before it can be visible. Clearly, we need to critically rethink our whole approach to rivers and river management, and must do so now.

Badiuzzaman Bay is a columnist, travel writer and human rights worker, currently involved with The Daily Star newspaper in Bangladesh

Leading Image : Cargo ships delivering shipment in old bazar port near the confluence of Padma and Jamuna rivers in Chandpur. Photo: GM Kibriya Riyaz.

Here, in this development wasteland, rivers don’t live; they merely exist. They exist as relics of their halcyon days when rivers were truly wild, mysterious, free. Or as a side character in their own story, as told through poetry and music. They exist to serve, to nurture, not to inspire imagination. They exist in collective…

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