A large waterbody – filled with red lotus and migratory birds in winter – near Chhotora, Dhanmondi and Racecourse areas in Cumilla enchanted visitors even a few years ago, but that scenery has vanished as the Cumilla Central Jail authorities built four large buildings by filling up a large part of the lake.
Currently, waste is dumped in the remaining part of the lake.
Numerous ponds and canals in Cumilla faced a similar fate, causing the city's environment to deteriorate, said the locals.
One such pond – inside the Cumilla Central Jail area – is also filled with sand and the authority is constructing another building there.
Shahjahan Ahmed, senior jail superintendent of Cumilla Central Jail, told The Business Standard that filling up the water bodies with sand would not cause any harm to the environment.
Asked about the laws regarding preserving the water bodies, he said, "The Public Works Department is doing the work, contact them."
Meanwhile, the Roads and Highways Department (RHD), Cumilla, built a residence for its supervising engineer by filling an old pond, owned by the department, in the city.
According to the RHD authorities, although it looks like a pond, it is not a pond in documents and land ledger, and it belongs to the residential land category. So, there was no obstacle in filling it.
In addition, a large part of Kandikhal canal in Cumilla is filled up and work is going on there to widen the Cumilla-Noakhali four-lane regional highway. The Roads and Highways Department claims that they own this part of the canal.
The Tomchhom bridge area of the city is facing heavy traffic jams due to the slow pace of the work to widen the highway. Besides, filling up the canal caused a flood in Cumilla city last monsoon, said some local people.
Earlier, Tomchhom Bridge Jame Mosque, old bus stand, some shops of Tomchhom bridge market, part of Cumilla Secondary and Higher Secondary Education Board, Education Board Mosque and Education Board branch of Sonali Bank had been built by filling a part of the Kandikhal canal.
Badrul Huda Jenu, a resident of the city and former manager of the Bangladesh Cricket Board, said the Kandikhal canal near Kandirpar area in the city was about 30 feet wide, but now this canal has almost disappeared. The present generation of Cumilla knows it as a narrow drain.
Apart from the aforementioned establishments, the residence of assistant superintendent of police (Sadar Circle) has been constructed by filling a pond in Cumilla Police Lines. Besides, the residence of officials of the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED) has been built by filling up a pond adjacent to the house of Martyr Dhirendranath Datta, a language activist and politician.
Abul Hasnat Babul, former president of Cumilla Press Club, said, "There was a waterbody beside the police line where the ASP's residence is located now. Once upon a time, there were many ponds, which were private properties, next to it. Now all are gone. The pond adjacent to Dhirendranath Datta's house has also disappeared."
More than five hundred ponds and waterbodies in the city have been filled, said Abul Hasnat Babul. One of them was a large pond in Shashangachha Dakbanglo area, which was filled up to build the bus terminal.
The waterbody adjacent to Cumilla Small and Cottage Industries Corporation is also getting narrower day by day. Several bighas of that waterbody have been filled up to build a number of small buildings there. Some parts of the filled waterbody are owned by the Railways and the District Sports Council.
Sheikh Farid, a resident of Thakurapara in the city, said he had never felt so uncomfortable even during summer before. Air in the city was cool and fresh because of the ponds, but filling up the ponds has made the environment there unbearable.
Ahsanul Kabir, a researcher on the history and heritage of Cumilla, said, "Cumilla was famous for its ponds and water bodies. Now we feel pain when we see that the government offices are filling up the water bodies. The people of Cumilla want to get rid of such destructive activities."
Shawkat Ara Kali, deputy director of the Department of Environment, Cumilla, told TBS, "Ponds or water bodies can be filled if it does not harm the environment. However, permission must be obtained from the Department of Environment in that case.
"As far as I know, no one has taken any permission from the environment department to fill the ponds or water bodies in Cumilla city."
Mohammad Kamrul Hasan, deputy commissioner of Cumilla, said the higher authorities had been informed of the recently filled water bodies and ponds.
Drives would be conducted in other places, which were going to be filled, said the deputy commissioner.
Moreover, if there was a specific allegation of filling a waterbody, action would be taken against those who were responsible for it, he added.
What the laws say
According to the Water Body Conservation Act 2000, it is illegal to fill any pond, waterbodies, river, canal, haor, and spring.
As per the Section 5 of the Act, it is illegal to change the category or use, rent, lease or transfer the identified natural water bodies for any other purpose.
Any person violating this provision shall be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or to a fine not exceeding TK50,000 or both as per sections 8 and 12 of the act.
Besides, according to Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act, 1995 (Amended 2010), filling up of any type of waterbody is prohibited.
On 22 October 2020, the High Court directed to publish a gazette to include not only government-owned water bodies but also privately owned ponds as natural reservoirs. In that case, there is a provision of permission from the authorities concerned to fill the privately-owned ponds.