A city that had over 50 canals and lakes only three decades ago, Dhaka has currently lost almost all of its water bodies. Over the years, most of these water bodies have been snatched by land grabbers and some have been used to dump massive quantities of garbage from nearby areas. Last December, although the High Court ordered the government to demarcate the areas occupied by these canals so that steps could be taken to return them to their original shape, no significant measures have been taken yet to re-excavate, demarcate and properly monitor their condition.
One such canal is located near Nobodoy Housing in the capital's Adabor area, where six-year-old Jisan, the son of Abul Hashem, alias Hashu Mia, lost his life after falling into it last Friday. To add to the tragedy, even though some locals saw him fall into the canal, they were unable to rescue him because of the density of the garbage that was dumped into the water body. It took a five-hour operation for firefighters—similarly hampered by the volume of waste material—to recover his body.
Jisan was playing cricket with his playmates and at one point his ball fell into the ditch. Since it was not demarcated and looked like a rubbish heap, Jisan jumped on the garbage to fetch the ball. Within moments, he sank and was unable to resurface. Eventually, after the five-hour operation from the firefighters, he was taken to Sikder Medical College Hospital at Rayer Bazar, where the duty doctors declared him dead.
Hashu Mia's son will never return to him, but was it an unavoidable death? The death of three-year-old Hridoy, who fell into the Jirani canal of Mugda area in October last year, whose body was not recovered until six days later; the death of four-year-old Ismail Hossain Neerob, who met his end in an open sewerage line in Kadamtali in December 2015; the demise of three-year-old Jihad who fell into a 600-foot deep shaft at Bangladesh Railway Colony in Shahjahanpur in December 2014—none of these losses of fledgling lives can be termed unavoidable by any stretch of the imagination. Death due to negligence and irresponsibility of government bodies is a form of manslaughter and sadly, the rate of such happenings is on the rise in Dhaka. But why do we remain silent and inactive?
According to urban planner Iqbal Habib, who is an architect and member secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA), the two city corporations were given the responsibility to recover and conserve the canals so that the canals could retain the normal flow of water.
“This decision was made in a coordination meeting led by late mayor Annisul Huq last July, upon discussion with the local government division, city corporations, water development board, public works department, WASA and some other bodies of the government. But they couldn't bring any change so far. In fact, it is the city corporation, which failed even to manage the solid wastes of the city and eventually chose the canals and ditches to dump wastes. Although the waste collectors of city corporations are supposed to collect wastes from different areas in trucks and dump them in certain outfalls or secondary transfer station (STS), some of them are only willing to dump the waste in the canals,” he says.
However, when contacted, the DNCC chief waste management officer (CWMO) Commodore Abdur Razzak claims that the city corporation is not the concerned authority for canals and that WASA is responsible.
When asked about the dumping of solid waste into the canals, the DNCC CWMO replied that it is a bad habit of the public. “I have not been informed that the city corporation waste collectors dump waste into canals, because our collectors bring waste to our own dumping stations,” he alleges.
On the contrary, when contacted, Engr. Taqsem A Khan, Managing Director, Dhaka WASA asserts that the canals are under the jurisdiction of the District Commissioner. From 2005, however, with finance from the World Bank, Dhaka WASA has been working on different projects to improve the conditions of some of Dhaka's canals. Adabor canal was not a part of any of these projects, he informs.
When asked about who was responsible for maintenance of the canal in question, he says, “I'm not sure who is supposed to clean the canal, but managing solid wastes is the responsibility of the city corporation. Also, WASA doesn't work on cleaning the canals; rather it works on the navigability to drain out rain water,” adds Khan.
“The child's death is in no way WASA's responsibility,” he concludes.
With the authorities refusing to acknowledge responsibility, what recourse, if any, do the parents have for justice or compensation?
Barrister Md Abdul Halim, chairman, Children Charity Bangladesh Foundation informs us that the Bangladeshi Constitution gives the right to the family of a victim to file for death due to the negligence of government authorities; additionally, they can also directly file a constitutional tort case in High Court seeking compensation under Article 102 of the Constitution.
Barrister Halim was the lead counsel in Jihad's compensation case—one of the most discussed compensation cases, the full verdict of which was released last October asking the government authorities concerned to pay BDT 20 lakh as compensation to his parents. As per the direction, Bangladesh Railway and Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence are supposed to pay BDT 10 lakh each within 90 days.
“Despite the HC's order, the authorities have not paid the money yet. I have sent a legal notice to the officials on January 22. As they did not reply to the notice we have asked the court's attention for their contempt of court. I'm working on this case to make it a precedent for the development of public law compensation in the judicial system of Bangladesh,” says Barrister Halim.
“In Jisan's case, if the city corporation is the owner of the canal or responsible as a concerned authority for its maintenance, and there is any locality near it, this body of government is legally obligated to make proper defence and arrangement, so that children or any other human being is not endangered or somehow fall into the canal and get killed. The city corporation will not be able to avoid this liability,” he adds.
Barrister Halim has so far filed 12 such cases regarding deaths due to negligence, but on most occasions, he has been caught up in the blame game played by the authorities. “For example, when I filed a writ petition against the Dhaka WASA, two city corporations and a private company association of Kadamtali for the death of Ismail Hossain Neerob, WASA sent a report saying that they were not the owners of the land on which the sewerage line was constructed. Instead, they said that it was the Bangladesh Garment Owners Association who took the land upon lease from the railways department,” he relates.
“Four months back, I sought a supplementary rule to the court mentioning that the chairman of the railways department and secretary of Ministry of Railways should be made a party to the case. The court issued such a rule. But the rule has not matured yet—it takes a long time and you know that it is very difficult to fix a court date for any matter, because all the courts are overburdened,” he adds.
A part of the blame must also fall on the citizens who misuse the natural water bodies and dump garbage in them. At the same time, letting the government authorities use the water bodies to dump waste or sitting idly by as they avoid reforming the death traps cannot be acceptable citizen behaviour. It is high time people knew their rights and responsibilities, and acted to demand change.