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Dhaka Tribune

Turag given ‘legal person’ status to save it from encroachment

The High Court has given orders to give some legal rights to all the rivers in Bangladesh

Update : 30 Jan 2019, 11:03 PM

The High Court on Wednesday accorded the Turag river the status of “legal person” to save it from encroachment and said that the status will be applicable for all rivers across the country.

As a natural person, human beings are protected by a set of constitutional rights and the status for the rivers will accord the rivers with some basic legal rights.

This is a landmark ruling in a case that has set the precedent for all rivers in Bangladesh to have a “legal person” status in Bangladesh.

The bench of Justices Moyeenul Islam Chowdhury and Md Ashraful Kamal gave the order while delivering the verdict in a writ petition filed by Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh.

The court will complete delivering the verdict today with a set of directives on saving the rivers from the encroachment.

Explaining the reasoning for the living entity status,  the court said that the rivers are shrinking everyday because of illegal establishments on the river banks.

“Bangladesh and its people will be in danger in the future if the rivers lose navigability and are not saved from encroachment,” the court said.

The ruling comes on the heels of a national conversation about saving rivers and giving them legal entity status. Local and international researchers as well as government and non-government officials working for river rights and protection, have demanded the recognition of rivers as a living entity in order to save it on the 2nd day of the 4th international water conference titled “River: A Living Being”,  in Kuakata, Patuakhali.

Experts speaking at the conference on Wednesday said the rivers are gradually being killed by us through unplanned developments, illegal settlements, pollution and more importantly, negligence.

Highlighting the key points of the discussion, AAB Country Director Farah Kabir said: "Through this conference I am addressing the general people as well as the political parties and ministries, to work in unison in order save our rivers."

A World Bank study said four major rivers near Dhaka - Buriganga, Shitalakhya, Turag and Balu - receive 1.5 million cubic metres of wastewater every day from 7,000 industrial units in surrounding areas and another 0.5 million cubic metres from other sources.

The Environment and Forest Ministry enacted a law in 1995 making it mandatory for all industrial units to use effluent treatment plants (ETPs) to save river waters from pollution, but owners often flout the rule.

The Ruling

In the partly delivered verdict, the court said: “Governments across the globe are enacting laws to protect their rivers and the courts are coming up with directives. In Bangladesh if courts did not do that there might have been multi storeyed buildings on the Buriganga river already or the Turag river becoming the site for illegal housing estate companies.”

The court said that in different verdicts, courts have given directives to protect rivers but those directives were not implemented. If the authorities had implemented them, there was no need to file this case with the High Court to save the Turag.

The court commented that most of the 450 rivers in the country are under the control of the grabbers including the Meghna, Brahmaputra and Padma.

“These rivers have been the source of livelihood for years. So, the court will give instructions which can be used to protect all the rivers from possession of  illegal occupation so that people would not have to file such petitions anymore,” the court said.

The Case

Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh had filed the writ petition; a judicial probe body was formed and they submitted a report with names of illegal grabbers and establishments. Later the  accused persons and organizations become party of the case.

Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh (HRPB) lawyer Advocate Manzill Murshid after the verdict was delivered told reporters there were 36 illegal establishments on the Turag river.  “We wanted the illegal structures to be removed.”

The court has said that it would give a set of directives to protect the rivers so that aggrieved persons do not need to come to the court for remedy in future.

Other ‘living’ rivers

The first instance of rivers being declared a legal person was on March 16, 2017  - the Whanganui river, revered by Maori was recognized by the New Zealand parliament as a living entity.

This status was granted based the spiritual ties the Maoris have with the third longest river in the country.

This was followed by India on March 23, 2017 when the court in Uttarakhand declared the Yamuna and Ganges rivers living entities citing similar reasons as the Bangladeshi court, reports CNN.

The court justified its ruling on the grounds that the rivers were "losing their very existence" and the situation required "extraordinary measures to be taken to preserve and conserve the Rivers Ganga and Yamuna.”

Dhaka Tribune's Nawaz Farhin Antara contributed to this report

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