Although the two-year-long movement for saving the distributary of the Teesta was a success story, campaigners cannot celebrate just yet
As a child, Parimal Majumder used to swim and catch fish in the waters of the Buri Teesta River. His home was located near the river bank in Kurigram.
Later at a young age, he moved to Rangpur and took up journalism as his profession.
Near the end of 2016, Parimal returned to Ulipur and found the Buri Teesta dying. The river was losing navigability and he set out to find the reason behind it. At one point, he found that the Thetrai-Daldalia dam had fully blocked the downstream flow of the Teesta, from where the Buri Teesta originates.
He visited the Ulipur Press Club and started organising programmes with his colleagues to save the river.
They already knew that the local fisherfolk were struggling to survive, and the farmers were thirsting for water to be used in irrigation and processing jute fibre. The people of Ulipur were also missing the mighty Buri Teesta, which was once an important part of their culture.
Local organisers of the non-government organisation Rail, Noujogajog O Poribesh Unnayan Gana Committee (Committee for Development of Rail, Inland Water Transport and Environment) also came forward to join the movement.
The Ulipur Press Club and the committee launched a massive campaign to motivate the people of Ulipur through door-to-door visits.
On March 13, 2017, the people of Ulipur formed a 2km human chain and the participation of women and children in the event was significant. A week later, the campaigners brought out a bicycle rally. Thousands of participants rallied through Ulipur roads in solidarity.
On April 11 the same year, the campaigners organised a unique protest by pouring water into the dying Buri Teesta.
"An overwhelming number of people from all corners of the society participated in that protest in Ulipur," recalled Parimal, adding, "A busy auto-rickshaw driver came with a bottle full of water. He requested us to pour the water on his behalf."
The movement was non-political, but politicians irrespective of different ideologies joined it. "That was not merely a civil society campaign, rather it was a mass movement," said Abu Sayeed Sarker, vice president of Ulipur Upazila Parishad and the movement's spokesperson.
Amid the popular mass movement, the Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) started excavating the Buri Teesta on March 13, 2019.
Local journalist Taibur Rahman geared up for the movement, despite owning 8 acres of land located on the Buri Teesta riverbed that was being excavated.
The excavation project had been opposed several times by illegal land grabbers. One day, when the excavators were forced to stop during an eviction drive near the Gunaigach Bridge, Taibur led a counter protest with the help of pro-Buri Teesta people.
Of the 41km-long Buri Teesta Khas land boundary, there are some private properties [lands] stretching about nearly 6km within the Ulipur Municipality. The private lands were not acquired during the 1978 canal digging mega programme.
"We, the campaigners, also demand immediate acquisition of those private lands and completion of the excavation project," Taibur said.
So close, yet so far
The two-year-long movement for saving the distributary of the Teesta was a success story. The Bangladesh Water Development Board started excavating the River Buri Teesta from Chilmari to Thetrai in Kurigram in 2019.
But the campaigners cannot celebrate just yet – the water board has halted excavation a few kilometres downstream from the Teesta because the Thetrai-Daldalia dam is located in the area.
If the excavation is completed, the water flow between the Teesta and the Brahmaputra would be restored, which the campaigners under the banner Buri Teesta Banchao – Ulipur Banchao [Save Buri Teesta, Save Ulipur] have been demanding.
In late '90s, the water board built the Thetrai-Daldalia dam by filling the mouth of the Buri Teesta with earth. The dam was a substitute to the Daldalia sluice gate, which had collapsed entirely during the flood in 1988.
"Until and unless the dam on the river is opened, excavation remains futile," Parimal Majumder, the firebrand of the movement told The Business Standard.
Local officials of the water development board said that without a regulator (sluice gate) at the mouth of Buri Teesta, monsoon-time overflow of flood water would submerge the downstream localities.
They added that a regulator would be constructed during a mega project to dredge the Teesta.
The excavation of the Buri Teesta was a part of the Delta Plan-2100 (1st phase), under which 88 rivers, 352 canals and eight water bodies across the country would be re-excavated. The cost for Buri Teesta excavation was Tk16.98 crore.
Rafiqul Islam, the BWDB sub-divisional engineer who supervised the Ulipur project, said 31.5km of the Buri Teesta – from Thetrai to Kachkol area of Chilmari – has been excavated. Kachkol is the Buri Teesta's estuary in the Brahmaputra.
In a recent visit to Ulipur, a team from The Business Standard toured along the Buri Teesta. The marks of excavation were bright. Soft earth were piled up on both banks of the spiral distributary and in many parts, its foreshore was yet to be protected.
The excavation left the Buri Teesta only 10-feet deep and minimum 40-feet wide almost throughout the entirety of its length. So the once mighty Buri Teesta now looks like a canal. Its riverbed was found filled with stagnant knee-deep water and in some parts, water hyacinths are growing.
The team reached the Arjun point of the Thetrai-Daldalia dam. At its west side, some houses were found in the midst of a vast wheat field. Unless informed, no stranger would assume that the field is actually part of the rest of Buri Teesta.
A mango tree plantation – around 20 yards wide – was found at the east side, just after the line where the excavation stopped. A number of tin-shed cottages were found on the foreshore. But the residents were evicted during the excavation last year.
Mashiur Rahman, 45, a fisherman and also a farmer, was among the residents who got evicted.
"Actually the land on which I used to reside for decades, was a Khas land. I have been evicted. But I will have no regret if the Buri Teesta gets a new life. Then I will resume fishing again. I will also be able to irrigate the paddy field from its water," said Mashiur expressing hope.
Abdul Matin, lawmaker from Kurigram 3 constituency inaugurated the excavation last year. He still supports the pro-Buri Teesta campaigners.
He told the team, "The main objective of the excavation is to restore the water flow and navigability of the Buri Teesta. So far, I am not satisfied with the project. There is the matter of the BWDB's negligence. The foreshore is yet to be protected.
"However, the project period has not expired yet. Discussions on dredging the Teesta is going on. After a feasibility study, a sluice gate will be built at the Arjun point to regulate the flow of Teesta through the Buri Teesta. This is necessary because Ulipur is a flood-prone area."