For the past two months, an unprecedented protest has been taking place in Northern Bangladesh. Braving the dip in mercury, hundreds of farmers and their families have been staging a sit-in near a beel (wetland) to raise their voice against a cross dam which they said has hindered their crop production severely.
Ashurar Beel in Nawabgangj Upazila of Dinajpur district is considered as a lifeline for the thousands of farmers who solely rely on agriculture for their breadwinning.The beel usually dries up at the end of the rainy season, allowing farmers to cultivate the land, part of which is even used for producing two crops a year.
Farmers living in dozens of villages in three upazilas- Nawabganj, Birampur and Phulbari surrounding the beel, have set up a huge shed, a tubewell, and toilets to facilitate their prolonged demonstration.
The cross dam was built in 2019 to retain water at the beel. As a result, the beel remained inundated even during the winter, inhibiting boro cultivation, which led to the farmers' misery.
Why the cross dam?
Although the project was implemented by Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corporation (BADC), it seems to have little to do with agriculture.
"Upazila administration of Nawabganj asked us to build the cross dam in order to protect khas (public) land, and facilitate tourism activity," S M Shahidul Alam, project director of Greater Bogura and Dinajpur District Minor Irrigation Development Project (GBDMIDP) told The Business Standard.
Apart from pointing out the need for protecting khas land, the UNO of Nawabganj, Nazmun Naher mentioned that the beel had gotten heavily silted.
"We had the cross dam built to retain water in the beel and thus conserve it. Due to sedimentation, the beel does not hold water anymore," the UNO said.
Meanwhile the farmers said they had been cultivating in the beel land for generations, and there are about 10 deeper spots in the beel - locally called "daw" – with an area of 10 to 20 bigha each, that remain inundated year round, serving as reservoirs for various native fish species. They however agreed that those reservoirs lost depth in the course of time.
Member of the Parliament for Dinajpur-6, Md Shibli Sadeeq told The Business Standard that the cross dam was built for tourism purposes.
"In 2010, the Sal Forest in Nawabganj was declared a National Park. In 2019, the upazila administration with my support built a zigzag wooden bridge on Ashurar Beel. The cross dam was constructed to retain water even in the dry season, so the tourists can enjoy the beauty of the place," said the MP. Developing fishery resources was also a part of the plan, he added.
"The protesters have no idea what extent of benefits they would be able to reap once tourism flourishes in the area," Shibli Sadeeq continued in response to a question about the protest. "If we can retain water in the beel, there will be shops, cottages, motels, various rides, houseboats and many other business opportunities for local people."
Currently, apart from the wooden bridge, buildings, temporary shops and some other tourist amenities including a Ferris Wheel have been established on the edge of the National Park and Ashurar Beel.
Expansion of these infrastructure will eat away more of forest land and adjacent khas land of the beel.
When asked about this, the MP avoided a direct answer and advised to focus on the economic benefits of the locals. "People must come out of the paddy-based livelihood. When these protesters will understand the economic benefits of tourism, they will thank us for this initiative," Shibli Sadeeq said.
Conflicting interests: Tourism vs agriculture
Although the beel has an area of 251 hectare, the cross dam led to inundation of much more land that belonged to them, the farmers claimed.
This claim could not be independently verified, nor did BADC conduct any survey to measure the inundated area having completed the project, according to Alam, the project director of GBDMIDP, who implemented the cross dam project.
However, satellite imagery analysis using European Union's Copernicus Sentinel data showed that the beel was full to the brim even in December 2019, while images from around the same time in 2018 and 2020 showed only parts of the beel under water.
Farmers, Bengali and ethnic communities alike, complained that their children dropped out of schools and colleges, and some were unable to marry off their girls due to sudden loss of livelihood.
"I have a few bighas of land in the beel which remained flooded when I was supposed to plant paddy in 2019. We had no other means of earning. My daughter and daughter-in-law are now working as farm labourers," said Baburam Tudu, a Santal farmer from Khatang para village, adding, "My neighbour Rajen Mardi and his family have moved to Dhaka in search of work."
Incidentally, this year, the beel is not flooded because the earthen part of the dam is breached, and water drained out through the canal. BADC sources said the dam was breached twice since January 2020.
BADC filed a case in January 2020 against hundreds of villagers, and three of them were sent to jail after 22 of the defendants surrendered in the court.
The rest, including the president of the committee formed to protect agricultural land, Rezaul Karim, who is also the president of Golapganj Union Awami League, got bail. On November 2, the charge-sheet was submitted against 85 villagers including 18 women, several of whom are 55 to 60 years old.
The farmers denied the allegation of demolishing the dam saying it breached due to water pressure. They also filed a case against the government seeking a temporary injunction on the construction that will "illegally change the nature of the land".
As further details of the project was required for the case proceedings, farmers applied to the BADC authority for information under Right to Information Act, but were denied the information on the ground of fearing "disclosure of such information could impede investigation and due judicial process of a pending case, or give rise to criminal activity."
Authorities took measures to repair the breached dam, and on October 30, brought an excavator to the spot to do the repair work, but the villagers organised and resisted the attempt.
From October 31, hundreds of men, women and children from Bengali and Santal communities have been guarding the spot day and night with a view to resisting any attempt to rebuild it. An elderly man, Golap Sarker, died during a hunger strike at the first stage of the demonstration, villagers said.
As the water drained, they have also been cultivating the land.
Farmers said they just want their food security ensured. Most of them secure their rice stock for the whole year from the beel's land, and then do small businesses or work as day labourers for the cash needed for other necessities.
"From higher land we do not even get a month's food," said Atiar Rahman, a farmer from Haripur.
But they have nothing against tourism, protesters clarified.
"The administration built the cross dam for tourism development, leaving the farmers in misery . As if development of farmers is not development at all," complained Mofijul Islam from Phulchhori Para.
"We are not against tourism. They can excavate the tourist spot where the wooden bridge is built and leave the rest as it is," said Mofijul.
Farmers and locals fear that the beel, once submerged permanently, will be leased out to influential quarters for developing tourism and fishery. The local MP is also included in the list of influential people.
MP Shibli Sadeeq denied the allegation and said, "There is no question of it. The beel is a huge area, and it is impossible to lease it out. It would be a different case if it could be fragmented in pieces like shrimp enclosures in the south-west." He is pushing the project solely for the interest of mass people, the MP added.
Satellite images from 2017, of course, show temporary structures fragmenting the beel along the length, apparently for fishing purposes.
Recently, while addressing a rally in Nawabganj, MP Shibli Sadeeq threatened to "settle accounts" with the leaders of the movement had they attempted to resist reconstruction of the dam.
MP's overenthusiasm made the locals - not only the farmers – suspicious of the real motive of the project.
Local fishers from around the beel area also question the potential of fishery development in the beel, as water discharged from Barapukuria coal mine is the only source of water for the beel during the dry season. The cross dam would make it a reservoir of toxic water, they said.
Farmers say the water makes their skin itch. Traditional fishers of the area also say the fish stock has been affected due to the contaminated discharge.
The project director from BADC, of course, claimed that the discharge is not harmful. "Coal is used for purifying water," Shahidul Alam said.
When reminded that the activated charcoal is actually used for filtering water, which is different from mined coal which often carries harmful substances, he said that it cannot be ascertained without a study.
BADC, however, did not conduct any such study to determine the suitability of this discharge for irrigation or fishery.
The local MP, as well, said that the water discharged from the mine is mineral-rich, and very high in quality.
A study titled "Assessment of Soil and Water Quality of Barapukuria Coal Mining Site, Dinajpur, Bangladesh," published in Bangladesh Journal of Scientific Research in 2016, however, concluded that the water and soil in the coal mine industrial area were found contaminated with coal leached drainage water, which "can deteriorate the aquatic life and agriculture."
Farmers usually rely heavily on ground water due to easy accessibility instead of water flowing through the canal, which is why its impact on agriculture could not be determined by them.
In response to the MP and the BADC PD saying the water coming from the coal mine is harmless, the protesting farmers dared them to stay in the water for 10 minutes. Another farmer said five minutes would suffice for the test.
What experts say
Cross dams accelerate the sedimentation process as it obstructs flushing out of silt. Construction of dams or any such structure in a natural wetland requires detailed feasibility study.
Professor Ainun Nishat, a renowned water resources expert, opined that the BADC does not have the expertise to determine the impact of such a cross dam.
"People are protesting because they have been affected by the dam. According to Bangladesh Water Act 2013, local people should have been consulted before implementing this project. The cross dam should be demolished," said Professor Nishat, adding that if the beel is getting silted up, it should be excavated instead of being dammed.