- What should be done to preserve Hatirjheel Lake
- Prevention of water pollution.Strict surveillance and fines to prevent littering from the restaurants.
- Regular cleaning operations in the lake.
- Law enforcers should be on high alert to prevent harassment or unpleasant experiences of the visitors.
- Monitoring reckless bikers and miscreants.
The stream that flows through the Begunbari and Gulshan areas of Dhaka North City Corporation, which we know as 'Hatirjheel Lake', is actually the 'Narai' river. This river flows by the side of Rampura to join the Balu River to the east.
But that same 'Narai' river is now a narrow stream or a drain flowing along the side of Rampura. Even its official name is 'Rampura Khal' as per the signboards of government institutions. A part of the river, which was damaged due to pollution, was rescued and named 'Hatirjheel Lake'.
The name 'Narai' does not exist anywhere. The 'Narai River' is a tragic example of how a river loses its identity and becomes a canal/drain and lake.
However, the High Court's recent directives to protect the surrounding environment of Hatirjheel, which has become one of the most scenic places in the capital, has created confusion. It is being said that the High Court in its verdict has ordered to stop the movement of the much-beloved public transport, the water taxi. But is that really the case?
Before going into the discussion, let us first see what the case really entails.
On September 10, 2018, the High Court issued a rule in the wake of a writ petition (No 11455) filed by Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh seeking protection of the environment around Hatirjheel. The hearing for the writ case was held on January 26, 2021. Justice Ashraful Kamal and Rajik Al Jalil passed the verdict in June 2021. The full verdict was published on 24 May, 2022.
In the verdict, the court termed the water and the spectacular beauty of Hatirjheel as an 'invaluable resource' and said that it cannot be destroyed or damaged in any way. In the four orders given on page 54 of this 55-page full judgement, Hatirjheel was declared as the 'lungs of Dhaka' and declared the property of the people.
Alongside, the verdict also ruled that all kinds of commercial establishments like hotels and restaurants are illegal, and ordered that they be evicted within 60 days of receiving a copy of the verdict.
Along with the order, the High Court has given nine suggestions, number 6 of which states, "Prohibit the use of all types of mechanical vehicles and water taxi services in the lake as it is harmful to the water."
Remember, this is the High Court's advice, not an order. Complying orders is mandatory. But the government need not necessarily comply with this advice. It may be mentioned that the High Court, in its judgement repealing the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution relating to the caretaker government, observed that elections to the Eleventh and Twelfth Parliaments could be held under a non-partisan caretaker government.
But the special committee set up in 2010 for the 15th amendment to the constitution did not take into account the court's observation. They argued that the court's observation was not part of the verdict. So, it is not obligatory to accept it (Amin Al-Rashid, Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution: Discussion-Argument-Debate, page 172).
In its judgement regarding the environmental protection of Hatirjheel, the court opined that it would be better to not operate water taxis to sustain the quality of the water. Now if the government considers it and stops water taxis here, it is their prerogative.
But before that many things have to be considered. Is the water of Hatirjheel being polluted due to water taxis? Is it a comfortable mode of transportation for users? How is it helping in reducing the frightening traffic of Dhaka city?
In these regards, discussions need to be held with environmentalists, urbanists and civil society representatives.
The nine recommendations of the High Court in this judgement include the formation of authority under the Prime Minister for the conservation, development and management of Hatirjheel Lake; installation of international standard underground toilets for public use; create footpaths, bicycle lanes and separate lanes for the physically challenged; there is also talk of setting up a fish sanctuary on the lake and naming the Hatirjheel-Begunbari project after scientist Sir Jagadish Chandra Basu.
These tips are good and they are not very difficult to implement. But if the water taxi is stopped, it will have a negative impact on the public transport of the city and whether the water taxi will actually cause water loss warrants an investigation.
Because, if the water is damaged due to the movement of boats, then boats will not be able to navigate in any of the rivers of the country. Moreover, the water taxis operating in Hatirjheel travel within the speed limit. Therefore, the chances of noise pollution or creating a disruption to breeding fish are also minimal.
The economic benefits of fish sanctuaries cannot be disregarded, but is it any less important that hundreds of people use this waterway every day to reach their destination? Bangladesh, a riverine country where influential people have occupied countless rivers; in rivers where insects do not survive, let alone fish, how much benefit can be gained by just setting up a fish sanctuary in Hatirjheel?
On the contrary, in light of the High Court's judgement in 2019 declaring rivers as 'living entities' or 'living beings' in the river, it is necessary for the government to take up a crash programme to address issues of encroachment, and decontaminate all the rivers in the country.
The reality is that, a great way to engage local people in preserving small or large rivers and canals, that is, wherever there is a flow of water, is to establish waterways there.
Even in the developed world, where cities have such rivers, canals and lakes, the government and the authorities use these waterways as one of the main means of communication. There are various economic activities and tourist centres are built. The Italian city of Venice is a great example. A city we talk about often.
Dhaka North City Corporation Mayor Atiqul Islam is conducting a campaign to recover the occupied canals from the heart of Dhaka. A few have already been rescued. He has even sailed in some of them. He announced that all the canals would be rescued and water taxis would be launched there and these canals would be connected to the rivers Buriganga, Turag and Balu which surround Dhaka.
Thus, one of the major public transport systems in Dhaka will be waterway-centric. Not only the mayor of the north but also the mayor of Dhaka south Sheikh Fazle Nur Taposh has promised to restore the occupied canals.
Hatirjheel now flows up to Sonargaon Hotel. If it can be connected to Dhanmondi Lake along Panthapath, an effective commute route will be established. Then the people of Dhanmondi can easily reach Gulshan in 15 minutes by taking the water taxi.
Now if there is traffic congestion on the roads, it takes two hours or more to go from Dhanmondi to Gulshan. If this stream flows westwards and joins the Buriganga, then the passengers will be able to get back to the main city by boat after landing at Sadarghat.
This will save them time and money. The physical and mental damage they experience from sitting long hours in traffic will also be reduced. So, considering many things, navigation in Hatirjheel is very important.
It is also not unreasonable to set up temporary or mobile shops in Hatirjheel. Because there is also a restaurant on the bank of Dhanmondi Lake, another beautiful place in the capital. If people want to eat light food like fuchka-chatpati-jhalmuri or tea-coffee when they go out with their family, then that arrangement should be made.
It is important to keep in mind that the small businesses that are set up around such a scenic route are called 'informal economy' in the language of economics - which plays a significant role in the overall economy.
What to do?
1. Adequate measures have to be taken to ensure that the water of Hatirjheel is not polluted even if water taxis are running.
2. There should be at least temporary or mobile restaurants even if permanent restaurants are not allowed. However, there should be strict surveillance and fines in place to ensure that food scraps, water bottles and plastic packets are not discarded into the water. Both buyers and sellers have to be covered under this penalty.
3. Regular cleaning operations should be conducted in Hatirjheel Lake.
4. Law enforcement should be on high alert to ensure that no one is harassed or disturbed while visiting Hatirjheel with family and loved ones.
5. Reckless bikers and miscreants must be monitored. Regular operations need to be conducted to ensure the safety of Hatirjheel.
6. Hatirjheel needs to be turned into a healthy recreation centre.
7. As the High Court has said in its judgement, Hatirjheel functions as the lungs of Dhaka. In light of this judgement, it must be ensured that Hatirjheel is indeed the breathing space of the city.
Finally, since the Honourable High Court has given its verdict and, in the judgement, they have highlighted the importance of Hatirjheel in detail, it is necessary to implement a long-term plan to take effective measures to protect the water and environment of Hatirjheel.
In a small country with a large population, the economy, public transport and recreation are as important as ensuring these do not become the reason for the destruction of nature and biodiversity. In other words, economic activities have to be conducted keeping nature, water and the environment safe.
Amin Al Rashid is Current Affairs Editor, Nexus Television.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.