It is hard to believe that a river would be pushed to slow but certain death for the sake of a so-called development project undertaken by a government agency. A report by this daily a few days ago reveals how the Roads and Highways Department (RHD) has filled up around 26 acres of the Kuhelia river in Cox's Bazar's Moheshkhali upazila to build a two-lane road.
The river has now turned into a narrow stream due to this massive encroachment. Reportedly, when the RHD gave the proposal to the land ministry to acquire land for the project, the latter had turned it down. Even then, the RHD moved ahead with the project ignoring the ministry's prohibition.
When a government agency does something like that, and so blatantly, it shows where our priorities lie as a nation. Is it any wonder then that local land grabbers feel emboldened to do the same ignoring river protection laws and Supreme Court directives in that regard? According to law, no one can hinder the natural flow of a river or fill up the flood plains of any river for any purpose. The High Court also gave some very important directives in 2019 declaring rivers as "living entities", while condoning strict punishment for polluters and grabbers.
However, very little has changed after those directives were given. News of our rivers being encroached or polluted by those in power or enjoying their patronage is getting quite frequent. Sadly, the perpetrators are hardly ever brought under the law. This daily has reported the sad condition of a few of our rivers in the last month alone—the Sonai River and the Old Khowai River in Habiganj district, for example, which are just two cases that recently exposed our failure to protect the rivers.
In case of the Kuhelia River, the RHD and the district administration had given the project proposal to the ministry by hiding some basic facts: while the RHD did not mention in its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report that construction work would require earth filling, the Cox's Bazar district administration mentioned the river area as "ponds" and "ditches" in the proposal sent to the land ministry. What is more, the RHD is continuing with the construction work ignoring the PMO's recommendation to build the road away from the river.
We, therefore, urge the government to take immediate steps against the RHD officials and those in the Cox's Bazar administration involved in the Kuhelia River grabbing, which is a punishable offence according to our law. Unless we can implement the law against powerful offenders, including those holding public offices, more of our rivers will face the same fate. Also, this will send a strong message to anyone who thinks they can get away with putting rivers in harm's way for their own petty interests.