A hundred years of cultural heritage of the vast community of Rajshahi, which was predominantly dependent on the river Padma, is on the verge of disappearance due to the change in the flow of the mighty river over the last two decades. The Farakka barrage has caused a catastrophe for many in Rajshahi and other districts the Padma flows through.
A recent study on the Padma River in Charghat upazila of Rajshahi conducted by ActionAid Bangladesh shows how the cultural rights of people are being undermined
under the territorialisation concept.
Photo- Syed Latif Hossain/ Dhaka Tribune
Throughout the decades, Bangladesh has been known as a riparian country. The economy, society, culture, and psychology of the people of this country have been dominated and shaped by the thousands of rivers flown through this delta. The history of civilizations all over the world shows how rivers play a crucial role as the lifeline of human civilization. In South Asia, to some, rivers used to be known as god (and still are in some places) and the life-giver. Rivers don’t carry just freshwater, but also play a vital role in the maintenance of groundwater table and temperature balance.
In the context of Bangladesh, a certain river flow is important to resist salinity infiltration in the coastal areas, and maintaining the ecological balance of the mangrove forest. Unfortunately, the perception of water and rivers has shifted from a humanistic point of view to a more commercial point of view, especially in South Asia. Rivers, despite being parts of nature, have become a property of the state, and the territorialising of such natural entities have further amplified the decision making and control over rivers in more isolated way.
Unlike air and light, water has not been realized as something beyond the political boundaries of states, and hence different states have their own interests in the same river (and in the same god). Instead of sharing the blessings of the river, the issue of water-sharing has become prominent in the bilateral treaties and discussions. Moreover, these treaties are heavily influenced by the technical and engineering aspects of rivers rather than the social, economic, cultural, and psychological aspects that go beyond the political boundaries of nations.
Sapura Begum is a resident of Godagari upazila who is affected by the erratic water flow of Padma. She says she has been observing such unpredictable behaviour of the river over the last 15 years. In her words: “This river has become so unpredictable. Sometimes there is too much water, causing erosion and flooding. We have shifted our house eight times so far. From my childhood, I had a dream to decorate my house my own way. But I couldn't, because I had no permanent home. I am here today, but I don’t know where I will be tomorrow!”
The most heart-wrenching experience was shared by Nunibala, who takes care of her family. In recent times, she has been unable to practice her religious rites due to the lack of water. She said: “I am deprived of the chance to say goodbye to my goddess, just because of this dry river.” Like Nunibala, Tota Mia, who used to be a farmer, witnessed how cultural practices like boat regattas and pitha festivals (lack of water hampered molasses cultivation which is essential for the pitha festival) have disappeared from their locality. He said: “We used to wait throughout the whole year for such festivals. These formed the very core of our rural tradition. Nowadays, the river has changed. But I still miss those days when my father used to take all our family members to enjoy the boat regatta.”
The examples of cultural decline that surfaced from the study conducted by ActionAid Bangladesh are similar in the communities of all districts subjected to human intervention on the rivers of Bangladesh, under the guise of so-called development. There are several examples of such psychological and cultural rights violations across this lower riparian country. But there is not enough representation of these issues when lateral treaties are being formulated and discussed. As long as the perception on rivers is dominated by the state-owned or territorialising concept, cultural, psychological, and social aspects of it will continue to remain ignored, and government will focus more on the sharing of water rather than the well-being derived from it.
So, it is time for the governments of South Asian countries to recognize rivers as natural entities, and that rights to them belong to all.