People Took Initiatives for Changing Policy

Written by: Shahidul Islam, Director, Uttaran

a. The Introduction:

Since 1980s, a vast area in the southwestern part of Bangladesh has been waterlogged. The inhabitants comprehend that the Coastal Embankment constructed during the 1960s is mainly responsible for this water logging. There were a number of popular movements demanding a sustainable solution to this problem of water-logging issue and the people have been expressing their grievances in different ways since long. In mid-90s, the government initiated a project for the drainage of water viz. Khulna Jessore Drainage Rehabilitation Project (KJDRP). This project was identical to that of the Coastal Embankment Project of 1960s. Fearing similar consequences, people of this region collectively opposed the implementation of the project and presented their own ideas for the solution of water-logging problem, which is popularly known as 'Peoples' Alternative Proposal'. Local NGOs, in association with their apex body (ADAB), articulated the people's concern and presented the alternative proposal to all concern including the government, the aid agencies (ADB) and the other key actors. Subsequently, the alternative proposal has been considered and it is acknowledged that the proposal is environment-friendly, economically viable, technically feasible and socially acceptable. It has been a remarkable achievement of people's struggle in safeguarding their environment.

b. The  Context:

From the environmental point of view, the south-west coastal region of Bangladesh was quite unique in several ways. Comprising the districts of Satkhira, Khulna, Bagerhat, and the southern part of Jessore, the region is basically a tidal wetland flooded by high tide at least twice a day. Since the land was highly fertile, people in large numbers moved in from other parts of the country and settled in the flood plains suitable for the cultivation of indigenous flood- and brackish-water tolerant varieties of rice. On the other hand, the rivers and estuaries of the region were rich in bio-diversity with hundreds of species of fish. All these factors together made the region abound in rice and fish production and there used to be no scarcity of employment and food in the region. Moreover, Sunderban, the largest continuous mangrove forest of the world, which is also a Unesco World Heritage site, is situated to the south of the flood plains, adjacent to the Bay of Bengal.

During the 1960s, the then government of East Pakistan implemented a Coastal Embankment Project, with a view to cultivating HYV of rice. The project was funded by a number of western donor agencies and the Dutch Government provided the technical support. The project was completed in 1973. However, the project design failed to comprehend the environmental and ecological consequences of an embankment construction. Although the immediate impact resulted in bumper crop production in the initial years, the inhabitants started to face severe environmental and ecological problems, well within a decade.

The main objective of the project was to convert the tidal wetland to a dry land suitable for the cultivation of two crops in a year instead of one crop possible earlier. With is view in end, 1556 km of embankment was constructed with a total of 37 polders and 282 sluice gates in the districts of Khulna and Satkhira and the southern part of Jessore district. During the initial 10-15 years, better crops were produced as the period coincided with the introduction of High Yielding Varieties (HYV) of rice. But the people witnessed a downfall in biological productivity of the area, particularly fish production was declining. However, a more serious consequence of the project begun to unearth in the mid 1980s as the upper portion of the tidal wetland was experiencing water logging. Almost all the estuaries began to silt up at the upper ends. In the pre-embankment period, the high tides used to deposit silts in the tidal plain during the months of January to June when the people used to breach the temporary embankments build for the period from July to December. In the post-embankment period, as tidal water could not enter into the tidal plain, the silts got deposited at the upper ends of the estuary and gradually the river-beds began to rise. Inside the polders, the wetlands subsided due to non-deposition of silt and gradually took the shape of lakes and according to government statistics, over 106,000 hectares of land have become water-logged.

This logging has brought about enormous sufferings for the people of the area. The embankment decreased the depth of the estuaries and the area of tidal prism. Salinity has gradually increased due to capillary action and vast agricultural lands have lost fertility. Many rivers are drying up due to increasing level of silt on their beds. Only a very small area of land can be brought under cultivation during the dry months since huge area is under

water for about last 15 years. Many villages have been submerged and houses and communication system have collapsed resulting in people in great number living on embankments and roads. Educational institutions have been severely damaged and many children have been forced to discontinue their education. On the other hand, livestock have greatly been decreased and firewood and pure drinking water have become very scarce. Water borne diseases like diarrhea and scabies have become widespread. Moreover, due to water logging, unemployment has been on the rise and many people have been forced to migrate to urban areas.

In this context, the people of the area were mobilizing resources to address the problem through their own organizations. While the citizen's organizations like CBOs and rural youth clubs tried to articulate the people's voice, the NGOs, working in the region, also joined the people and the media gave wide coverage. As a result, with a declared view to mitigating the misery of the people, the Government initiated a project namely "Khulna Coastal Embankment Rehabilitation Project (KCERP)". But the community rejected the project, as it was similar to the CEP of 1960s. Subsequent attempt of the Government in the name of "Coastal Embankment Rehabilitation Project (CERP) was also rejected by the community. Finally, the Government undertook "Khulna-Jessore Drainage Rehabilitation Project" (KJDRP) with financial support from the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

KJDRP aimed at draining out water from 100,600 hectares of land of 8 Upazilas in Khulna, Satkhira and Jessore districts. The project proposed construction of some regulators and cross dam on some estuarine rivers through demolition of several small polders and bringing them altogether into one single polder. KJDRP also had component to involve NGOs for social mobilization in support of the project. The project implementing agency labeled some organizations as pretended NGOs and those so-called NGOs started to mobilize people in favor of the project. When the technical options of the project were disclosed, the people realized that those were identical to strategies offered before but under new nametags. Therefore, there was strong resistance from the people and progressive local NGOs under the leadership of Uttaran made an alliance with their apex body ADAB to pursue the matter at the national and international levels.

After a careful deliberation, a team of NGO leaders, led by the ADAB Chairperson, submitted a representation to the Water Resources Minister on behalf of the community people. The team also submitted an alternative solution, steered jointly by the local NGOs and the people of the area. The Water Development Board (implementing agency of the KJDRP) arranged a discussion with local NGOs in Khulna but that failed to reach any agreement. The KJDRP authority went ahead with the implementation of the project without considering peoples' concern.

In this context, finding no other alternate, a petition was submitted to the Asian Development Bank jointly by ADAB, the Coalition of Environmental NGOs (CEN) and the local NGOs. The petition demanded a clarification from the Asian Development Bank with regard to the impact assessment of the proposed project as it was going to be implemented in a highly sensitive environment and eco-system. The ADB was approached for proper Environmental Impact Assessment and Social Impact Assessment prior to the implementation of the project. Apprehending the grievances of the community as a whole, the ADB responded fast and a team visited the area in April 1997. The ADB team discussed the matter with ADAB, local NGOs, Water Development Board and finally an agreement was reached to conduct an EIA and a SIA by independent study teams before the implementation of the project. However, the Water Board, after some maneuverings, tailored the decision in favor of EIA and SIA to be conducted by their own department. The NGOs and the community strongly opposed the idea.

When the stud2y team of the Water Board went to the area, the people strongly opposed the technical options of the project and pressed their demand for alternative solution through tidal river management (TRM). TRM is use beel areas as tidal basins and to raise the land progressively by sedimentation, ie, sediments deposit are not removed. No land requisition involved in this proposal and the raised land would return to the owners (SMEC 1999). On the other hand, the so-called community organizations (pretended NGOs) and the Water Board's study team were trying to convince the people in favor of the technical options as stipulated in the original project design. Their attempts failed to dupe the people and the people organized a huge mass gathering in the area demanding redesigning of the project. So the people's vigilance forced the study team to incorporate the alternative solution of TRM in its report submitted in late 1998. The report recommended 6 options and TRM was the 6th one. While the technical options involved a cost of $62 million, the TRM option could cost only $0.7 million. The study team also termed the TRM option as socially acceptable, economically feasible, environment-friendly and technically sound. Accordingly, in December 1998, the Asian Development Bank revised their Aid Memorandum.

When the above report was published, the people and the NGOs like Uttaran became more sanguine and demanded implementation of the project with TRM option but one of the influential cabinet minister favors the technical options. Enraged with the movement of NGOs, particularly with Uttaran's leadership, the Minister came up with different strategies. Uttaran's education project, in collaboration with Government was suspended. Some of NFPE centres of Uttaran were burnt out. Government allocations for Uttaran-sponsored college were stopped. Attempts were made to harass the Uttaran's Director and the Chairperson of the Water Committee by law enforcing bodies using the Special Powers Act.  It was resisted as the ADAB submitted a representation to the Home Minister but that was not the end of the story. With an ill motive to victimize in one way or the other, the Uttaran Director's wife and sister, who are college teachers, were transferred to some remote colleges. To protest this hatred act of victimization, Uttaran took the matter with the High Court for an injunction against the execution of the transfer order. Moreover, several other harassment court cases were filed against the leaders of the environmental movement and it may be mentioned that 102 persons were falsely accused. Uttaran has been providing them with legal assistance.

c. The Role of NGOs:

In mobilizing the movement, NGOs of the area played a vital role under the leadership of Uttaran. In order to realize the people's demand to redesign the project, the NGOs mobilized people at the grassroots level, undertook massive media campaign, developed a concept for alternative solution of water-logging, pursued at the local level, and finally made an alliance with national level apex body of NGOs to pursue the matter at higher levels.

Grassroots Mobilization

A network of local NGOs namely "SANJOG" was developed. Group discussions, workshops and seminars were held which were participated by the members of various professional organizations such as Medical Associations, Bar Associations, Teachers' Associations and Press Clubs. A leadership cadre was developed in each of those professional organizations. A flip chart was developed for demonstrating the demerits of the Government-proposed KJDRP and the merits of the 'Tidal River Management' concept. Moreover, a mobile cultural group was formed (Gana Sangskritic Kendra) which performed different plays on environmental issues with particular emphasis on water logging problem. Some other popular groups were formed spontaneously by the victims of water-logging, for example, the most influential one being the "Beel Dakatia Songram Committee". On the other hand, the Water Committee formed under the initiative of Uttaran developed a strong relationship with such groups and helped enable them by means of dissemination of information through workshops, seminars, rallies, demonstration and public meetings.

Media Campaign

A book titled "Towards Sustainable Tidal Wetland Development" was published with a view to influencing the policy makers at national and international levels. Newspaper cuttings on "Water-logging" issues were compiled to influence the decision-making process. A good number of wall paintings were produced and huge posters and leaflets were distributed. A monthly newsletter named "Upakul Barta" (Tidal Wetland Information) is being published for the opinion leaders (Union Parishad Chairmen, School Teachers, Political Leaders, etc.) and policy makers to provide them with information on water logging and tidal wet land. Orientation courses on water logging and other problems of the coastal wetland were held for the journalists of Khulna, Satkhira, Keshabpur and Tala Press Clubs. A TV film was produced on water logging and the impact of the Coastal Embankment Project (CEP) and was telecast by the Bangladesh Television.

National level alliance building

During the movement, Uttaran built up alliance with ADAB and Coalition of Environmental NGOs (CEN). ADAB is the national level apex body of NGOs in Bangladesh. ADAB arranged a number of meetings with the high officials of the Government including the secretaries of concerned ministries and the Water Resources Minister as well as the delegation of the Asian Development Bank. CEN also provided support to address the issue of water-logging by means of advocacy.


Uttaran, together with ADAB, undertook a series of actions to persuade the following key actors to come out with a sustainable solution for the water-logging problem:

  • Water Development Board - the project implementing agency
  • Water Resources Ministry
  • Ministry of Environment and Forestry
  • Local Government
  • Local politicians of water-logged areas, particularly the Members of Parliament
  • Consultant Team of KJDRP
  • Asian Development Bank - the funding agency.

Uttaran submitted a number of letters to ADB and also attended a meeting of the Governing Body of the ADB held in Geneva during April 28 to May 3, 1998. The representative of Uttaran discussed the issues of water-logging problem with the ADB board members and the representatives of the participating countries.

d.  The outcome of the efforts by Uttaran and ADAB

The impact of these concerted efforts of the local NGOs, ADAB, media and the people in general has been quite far-reaching. As a result of this movement to make a project environment-friendly, it is now realized by all concerned that the south-western coastal region of Bangladesh is uniquely different from other part of the country. The government as well as the people of the region can now perceive the uniqueness of the area quite clearly. National level policy makers and the funding agencies are also aware of the sensitivity of development intervention in the region. All quarters now agree that any development intervention in the region should be environment-friendly. It has also been accepted that the development intervention of the 1960s through the construction of polders was a gross mistake as the polders are now posing major threat for the human habitation in the area. It is now realized that the project has severely degraded the biological productivity of the region and the world heritage Sundarbans is also at risk. The NGOs have incorporated environmental dimensions in their programs in addition to the national issues such as education, health, human resource development, micro-credit, etc. NGOs have formed a Network on the environmental issue. The idea of Tidal River Management has paved the way towards achieving the long cherished restoration of the natural ecosystem and for a sustainable solution of the water-logging issue and the participation of the people in this regard has added a great momentum in the movement towards his end.

e.  Conclusion

It has been a common misconception of most academics and policy-making bodies that the rural people lack the knowledge to judge as to what is best for them. But in reality, it has been proved time and again that top-down approach in solving local problems with no people's participation can not bring about sustainable solutions for local problems. The Coastal Embankment Project of the 1960s caused tremendous suffering for the local people. It has been proved that participation of the local people, as outlined in this paper, facilitate appropriate solution for a problem like water logging in southwestern region of Bangladesh. The organizational capability of Uttaran has also been greatly benefited through this movement. On the one hand, through an alliance with the local people, Uttaran has earned the confidence of the community people, which in turn empowered Uttaran in its advocacy for an environment-friendly and people-friendly solution for the waterlogging problem.


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