The Surma, known as the lifeline of Sylhet, is ailing due to severe pollution, land encroachment and sand extraction. But the authorities concerned are doing little to save the river. When contacted, the Sylhet Water Development Board said the Surma river banks in the city areas are recorded as khas land. So, it is the duty of the deputy commissioner’s (DC) Office to take a decision on starting eviction drives, it noted.
But the DC said the responsibility of protecting all rivers, including the Surma, fell under the jurisdiction of the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB).
Encroachers grab riverbanks:
Encroachment on both banks of the river in Sylhet city is eating away the free land. The city"s only wholesale market is situated on the river"s north bank in the Kalighat area. The market occupies more than a kilometre of land. A lot of rice traders have set up their wholesale shops by illegally occupying parts of the river bank. At Kazir Bazar, the river bank can hardly be seen as auto-rice mills, fish markets and other wholesale shops have occupied the whole of it.
On the south bank, around 6 km of land have been occupied by a variety of trading units, especially steel and metal shops, vulcanising and mechanical machine shops, and recyclers.
When asked about surveying the riverbank land and starting eviction drives, the deputy commissioner of Sylhet, M Kazi Emdadul Islam, told The Independent: “All river banks are always recorded in Ledger-1 as Khas land. But we"re yet to survey the extent of encroachment on the Surma banks. As for eviction drives, it is the job of the BWDB. We can only co-ordinate, but the decision must be taken by the water development board.”
But the BWDB takes a different position. It denies having any control on the lands in the city areas. It says that the DC has the full authority to decide on the land-use.
“Our responsibility is to protect river banks from flooding and excavation of shelves forming in the river beds. We have no authority to deal with the associated land,” said Asef Ainan, BWDB sub-divisional engineer in Sylhet.
Along with the instances of illegal occupation, governmental establishments too pose a major threat. Five bridges within a stretch of about 6 km in Sylhet city block the river"s natural flow, causing the formation of enormous shelves on the river bed. The newly built Kazirbazar Bridge in Sheikhgaht seems to have dealt a death blow to the river. Its giant pillars have virtually choked the river.
A big shelf rises every winter on the river"s upstream. Excavation by the BWDB is the only way to keep the river alive. Regarding the construction of the Kazirbazar Bridge, Asef Ainan said: “The bridge authorities did not discuss the matter with the BWDB before construction of this bridge. Had they done so, it would not have become a matter of hell for the Surma”
Who will curb pollution:
All the drains of the Sylhet City Corporation (SCC) are connected with the Surma and carry huge amounts untreated wastes. They are released at Kanishail, Kazirbazar, Laldighirpar and Chararpar points.
Ashraful Kabir, environment activist and convener of Bhoomisantan Bangladesh, told The Independent: “We are carrying on a movement for many years to save the Surma from pollution. The departments concerned have always assured us that they would make a sustainable plan to make the Surma free of pollution. But that hasn"t happened.”
SCC mayor Ariful Haque Chowdhury said the SCC has already taken a plan to provide buckets to all homes in the city to keep household garbage and plastics. The conservancy department of the SCC would collect the garbage daily. “We have also planned to install strainers at the dumping points of all drains to prevent polythene and plastic materials from being dumped into the river,” he added.
Surma suffers lack of navigation:
Sylhet city stands on both banks of the Surma river. Till the time of the development of road connections, trading and communication mostly depended on the waterway of Surma. Now, the country"s longest river has almost lost her navigability, especially in winter, when the water levels fall. Experts say the Surma has lost its navigability due to lack of water flow caused by the construction of unscientific and non-eco-friendly bridges and the resultant formation shelves below the surface.
Executive engineer M Shohidujjaman Sarkar said: “Besides too many bridges, Surma is also suffering because of lack of water due to a huge shelf at at Zakiganj Amalshid, where the Borak river from India divides into the Surma and Kushiara after entered Bangladesh. The shelf must be excavated. But it is an international river, the issue has to be placed at the meeting of the Joint River Commission of Bangladesh and India. This is causing a delay."