Not a single person has been jailed for filling up rivers, canals or wetlands in the capital in the last one decade since the Wetland and Open Space Conservation Act, 2000 came into effect.
Even though the government vowed to save the rivers around the capital, in no instance was the earth used for filling up the water bodies was removed.
The practice of filling up rivers and making false documents with the help of dishonest land officials continues unabated. Despite tough laws, the grabbers could not be resisted due to the lure of the increasing land prices.
In some cases, the government agencies themselves violated the laws and filled up rivers and other water bodies.
The government in 2000 formulated the Wetland and Open Space Conservation Act with an aim to conserve environment in the capital as well as in other urban areas. But no evidence is available that public interest is duly preserved under this law.
Legal experts say this law is being ignored like other environment laws.
“Nobody was punished under this law for filling up wetlands, rivers or canals,” said Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association.
This law specifies a jail term of up to five years or a fine up to Tk 50,000 or both in case of its violation by filling up rivers, canals or wetlands or changing the character of lands without permission.
“Once somebody fills up a portion of a river or wetland, it loses its original character,” said Rizwana Hasan.
Underscoring the importance of protecting wetlands, rivers and canals, the government last year amended the Environment Conservation Act with provision for jailing offenders for up to two years and fining Tk 2 lakh for filling up rivers or other water bodies.
A second-time offender could have 10 years’ imprisonment and be fined up to Tk 10 lakh.
Even this law could not discourage land grabbers as they can always make fake documents and claim portion of rivers or water bodies as their inherited properties.
The enforcement and monitoring wing of the Department of Environment has been conducting drives against illegal land filling. They have fined a number of people in recent months.
For the first time, the environment department was able to arrest one person in January this year.
It had Hazi Mahbub, a known river grabber of Kamrangirchar, detained for filling up a portion of the Buriganga.
This, too, failed to shoo away other land grabbers.
Recently, the enforcement and monitoring wing stopped earth filling by Aslamul Haque, an Awami League lawmaker, in the capital. Aslamul, himself a member of the River Saving Taskforce, was filling up a portion of Aati canal and that of the Buriganga in Keraniganj without taking any environment clearance certificate.
Later the lawmaker wrote to the DoE for permission for earth filling in the low-lying land.
Even though the law specifies what punishment the judiciary may mete out to violators, it does not direct the government to restore the original characteristics of the damaged water bodies.
Influential people continue to possess the occupied riverbanks obtaining status quo from the court against any eviction drive.
At least one hundred such installations exist in and around the capital where the grabbers have obtained status quo from the court through legal loopholes and turned everything in their favour.
The Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA) or the district administration could not take legal action against the encroachers following the status quo.
BIWTA insiders say the court orders go in favour of the grabbers, as they never mention they were filing petitions regarding riverbanks and often produce fake documents to mislead the court.
“Most of the times they use false information saying the land belonged to them. We file cases but it takes a long time to free the land from the grabbers,” said Sharif Afzal Hossain, senior deputy director of BIWTA.
BIWTA itself has also violated the court order by constructing several commercial installations on riverbanks.
On both sides of the BIWTA office at Sadarghat, the river saving authorities have constructed business sheds on filled up parts of the Buriganga.
It even constructed a jetty filling up the Shitalakhya at Kanchpur after the High Court on June 25, 2009 issued directives to demolish all structures in the rivers.
In addition, it filed a petition with the HC seeking directives not to demolish commercial establishments it had permitted for installation of different industries and business houses on the four rivers.
In its petition, the BIWTA had used the name of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, a fervent supporter of save-the-rivers campaign, to get the court order in its favour.
But the court rejected the appeal.
Failing to comply with the HC order, the government has recently appealed to the court for two more years to implement the order that asked to remove all the structures from rivers.