Victims of riverbank erosion also blamed the local lawmaker for failing to take initiatives in stopping the dredging of the river
Indiscriminate dredging of the river Padma, allegedly by ruling party leaders in Munshiganj’s Lohajang upazila, is threatening the fates of around 1,500 families who live near the banks of the river.
Erosion of the riverbank reportedly gathered pace from August 15 and has already claimed massive pieces of land in the affected villages. The victims claimed that the inconsiderate dredging of the river sediment from three points of the Padma had accelerated the erosion of the land that had belonged to their families for generations.
Visiting the most affected areas including Kumarbhogh, West Shimulia, Ranigaon, Mawa and Bhagyakul villages, the Dhaka Tribune found that many local residents were busy shifting their moveable properties away from their own land on the riverbank which might go under water at any moment.
Over the last couple of weeks, Rashid Sheikh, 60, a resident of Khoria village under Kumarbhogh union, has lost 56 decimal of the 70 decimal of land that he inherited from his father. Cracks have also appeared on the remaining property which appears ready to be eroded soon as well.
Sitting heartbroken on his remaining land, Rashid told the Dhaka Tribune: “Last night when I left my property, there was a minimum of five gonda [one gonda= seven decimal] land remaining. When I returned here in the morning, I saw another three gonda had already gone in the river. While I am staying at the local mosque for the moment, I fear there will be nothing remaining for me when I come to see my land tomorrow morning.”
Abul Kalam, another victim of river erosion, said: “As the dredgers are lifting sediment from the riverbed near these affected areas, the river current is strong and causing riverbank erosion.
“We have been living here for many years. This type of erosion has never happened before as dredging had not taken place in the area before,” Kalam added.
Families in Khoria village pointed to a dredger that was excavating sediments a kilometre away from the village, claiming that around 300 vessels carried the extracted soil everyday to other destinations where it was used for commercial purposes.
Victims of riverbank erosion also blamed the local lawmaker for failing to take initiatives in stopping the dredging of the river.
Sufia Begum, 72, a former union parishad member at Kumarbhogh, told the Dhaka Tribune that the local lawmaker, who had promised before the election to take care of all the problems of local residents, was now nowhere to be found.
When contacted, the MP of Munshiganj 2 constituency, Sagufta Yasmin, said: “All the residents of Lohajang upazila are like my children. I stand beside them for all kinds of problems they face.”
She also claimed that the sediment lifted from Padma River was used for the Padma Bridge project and also for development of roads and highways projects under the Shipping Ministry and Communication Ministry.
“As a local lawmaker, I have no power to oppose the ministry decision; although I am always against lifting of sediment from Padma River,” the MP said.
Meanwhile, the locals claimed that the dredging business was a lucrative trade for ruling party leaders, who allegedly received Tk15,000 in commission from every sand-carrying vessels. The dredging work was also supervised by influential Awami League leaders, they added.
Lawmaker Yasmin, however, denied allegations about ruling party leaders’ involvement in river dredging, saying: “None of my local leader is involved with the lifting of sediment from Padma river. All dredging projects have gone to people outside this area through tender.”
But when the Dhaka Tribune spoke to the people working with the dredgers, they said local ruling party leader Rashid Sikder was in charge of the sediment lifting.
Several victims of the riverbank erosion, preferring to stay unnamed, told the Dhaka Tribune that they received threats from Rashid Sikder over the phone after recently staging demonstrations against the dredging work. Rashid threatened to file false cases against the locals who protested the dredging, they added.
“Now all of us have kept our mouth shut against them and are enduring their injustice,” a victim told Dhaka Tribune seeking anonymity.
Meanwhile, Rashid Sikder, the general secretary of Lohajang thana Awami League unit, denied the allegations against him. The sediment being dredged were used in government projects, Rashid claimed, but admitted that he oversaw the dredging operations. He further claimed that dredging of the river did not cause riverbank erosion in the area.
Asked about the alleged threats issued by him, the Awami League leader claimed that such rumours were spread by the local BNP activists.
Several local Awami League leaders, seeking anonymity, however told the Dhaka Tribune that Rashid was an influential leader in the area and was the “right-hand man” of local MP Sagufta Yasmin.
Many people who lost their land urged the government to rehabilitate them to other locations or compensate them with money equal to the price of their lost land.
Upazila Nirbahi Officer Muhammad Khalequzzaman told the Dhaka Tribune: “We are trying to help the victims of riverbank erosion. From tomorrow, we are going to distribute 10 tonne of food among the victims.”
Asked about what action had been taken to stop the dredging, he said: “The river sediment is used for government-run projects, while without the soil the development work will stop. But I think dredging is not responsible for riverbank erosion.
“As many of the victims are rich people, we will identify the families in need who have already lost their land and then find them rehabilitation.”
When asked about initiatives for rehabilitating the erosion victims, lawmaker Sagufta Yasmin said: “I have already sent proposals to the water resources minister and the shipping minister to take initiatives to help my area’s residents who have fallen victims to riverbank erosion. Many projects worth Tk120 crore are also going on to protect the area from erosion.”