He has been writing, researching and organizing people on the river for two decades. Involved in a daily newspaper, working part-time teaching at Jahangirnagar University. Among the books he has written and edited on rivers are Subject Rivers, River Thoughts, Crisis and Struggle of Meghnapar, River Context, Documented Baral. He is the editor of an annual magazine called ‘Nadi’.
Sheikh Rokon studied Mass Communication and Journalism at Dhaka University. He also received short-term studies on environmental policy editorial from the University of Oklahoma in the United States and India-Bangladesh water relations from the University of Sikkim in India.
Tanmoy Imran has given a special interview on the International Rivers Day.
Tanmoy Imran: Today is International Rivers Day. What does ‘river service’ mean?
Sheikh Rokon: This is actually the Bangla of the International Day of Action for Reverse in English. We have done ‘Nadikritya’ in Bengali of Action for Reverse. Duty means to do. River service means to do for the river. To put it bluntly, the day to decide what to do for the river.
Tanmoy Imran: We are used to hearing ‘Funeral’ in Bengali. Didn’t it become a little negative word?
Sheikh Rokon: Look, the funeral also means but the last thing to do. That too is not negative, but the most positive work of society and humanity. And you will see, in Bengali, not only the last rites, but also the word friendship is widely used. But when we try to launch this Bengali of Day of Action for Reverse, many have raised the issue of funeral before. But at first I thought of the word friendship. The fact that you yourself were involved in the beginning of the Riverine People is probably due to friendship. Still not doing a little bit of friendship by bringing river discussions to the public through interviews?
Tanmoy Imran: Yes, I remember. When Riverine People or its predecessor River-Loving People started, we went to university. We used to talk a lot about rivers. However, did not face any challenge in launching this Bengali?
Sheikh Rokon: Of course I did. Many have criticized it early on, especially on social media like Facebook. A few years ago I had a long discussion with our friend Delwar Jahan of Natural Agriculture about this. Friendly debate. He is an early well-wisher of the Riverine People. Remember, two of our dearest people, author and researcher Pavel Perth and Nurun Nabi Shant, also had a critical debate. Even some of my comrades-in-arms from Riverine People, my own organization, were mildly skeptical about whether this translation would work.
Tanmoy Imran: Has everyone accepted in the end?
Sheikh Rokon: Now river worship is common, you see the evidence. Today the news has been published in the newspapers. Various environmental organizations have taken various programs. However, due to the Corona situation, no program was adopted as stylish as in other years. This time the river service day is being celebrated all over the world in accordance with the health rules. Although various organizations have observed the day under the name of Bangla for the first time, they have been celebrating it as a river ritual for the last few years.
Tanmoy Imran: Is there any proof?
Sheikh Rokon: This year’s theme is Celebrating Rights of Rivers. In Bengali, celebrating the rights of the river.
Tanmoy Imran: What is the context of this day?
Sheikh Rokon: The day was first proposed by the same US-based non-governmental organization called International Rivers. Now, of course, the organization’s headquarters have moved to Australia. At their initiative, in March 1998, representatives from 20 countries met in Curitiba, Brazil. The aim of the conference was to organize anti-dam public opinion. From there, March 14 of each year is declared as the International Day of Action for Rivers. The significance of this day is to determine what to do for the river in the next one year and to build public opinion on it.
Tanmoy Imran: Did you start celebrating Riverine People’s Day in Bangladesh? Since when?
Sheikh Rokon: No, no, when this day was celebrated in Bangladesh, the Riverine People were not born. Personally, I have been working on the river for over a decade. I am writing. But organizationally the Riverine People were not then. In this country, Bangladesh and Bangladesh Environmental Movement or father started celebrating the day. Engineer Muhammad Hilaluddin and Dr. Abdul Matin was associated with International Reverse. They started celebrating the day in Bangladesh. In what year? My guess is that the first day was celebrated in 2005-2006. We first named it Bengali in 2011.
Tanmoy Imran: So the Riverine People just took the responsibility of making the name of the day Bengali?
Sheikh Rokon: Not just responsibility, spontaneous work. Among many things it can be called a job. Initially, the sticker was in five languages - English, Chinese, French, Portuguese and Spanish. Stickers of the same design, for use online or offline. From there we made its Bangla sticker in 2013 and started the campaign for its launch. Mainly through social media. Later, however, the original organization changed their stickers.
Tanmoy Imran: Joint writing on rivers is probably part of a campaign. In the beginning, my name was also in one of the two joint writings.
Sheikh Rokon: From the very beginning, you can say that we have introduced a ritual on the day of the river. Collective writing in newspapers. This year too you will see our joint writing in the daily Samakal. In addition, our Riverine Committee and Riverine Club at the field level undertake various programs. Especially on River Day we started ‘Cycling for River’ for the last few years
I’m here. Going to the river bank in a group on a bicycle. As I said earlier, there is no central instruction on the program this time because of Corona. For those who can, take the program in compliance with the hygiene rules.
Tanmoy Imran: There used to be joint writing in different newspapers, now I don’t see much.
Sheikh Rokon: Now it is published alone. Even today you will see in various newspapers. In the past, we used to organize joint writing and try to get it published in the media. That initiative was actually just the beginning. We knew we had to organize for a few years. Will then turn on spontaneously. Writers will send articles or newspapers will give assignments to reporters. That is what is happening now. We don’t have to organize anymore. This is what we wanted.
Tanmoy Imran: A few more days with the river?
Sheikh Rokon: At least three days are celebrated in Bangladesh only on rivers. March is Rivers Day, August is River Rights Day, and September is World Rivers Day. You will also find Water Day or Wetlands Day. There is also the issue of the river indirectly.
Tanmoy Imran: You are probably a pioneer in celebrating World Rivers Day in Bangladesh.
Sheikh Rokon: You are right. Many people confuse river day with river day. We started celebrating that day in Bangladesh and in the beginning we used to determine the theme of Bangladesh. Later on, we do the work jointly with many more like-minded organizations. On the occasion of that day, a joint ‘walk for the river’ was held from Bahadur Shah Park in Old Dhaka to Sadarghat. Besides, the organizations also have separate programs.
Tanmoy Imran: What is the difference between the two days?
Sheikh Rokon: There is no difference of purpose, there is a difference of purpose. World Rivers Day is almost two decades older than Rivers Day. The day is also ratified by the United Nations. Riverside Day has so far only been celebrated at the initiative of International Rivers. Wherever the organization is involved, only in those countries. World Rivers Day is relatively spontaneous. What to do for the river gets more attention on the day of river service. And on River Day, any aspect of the river can be brought to attention. Since then, World Rivers Day has been celebrated with greater perspective and philosophy than Rivers Day.
Tanmoy Imran: And river rights day?
Sheikh Rokon: You can also be proud of the fact that this day has been declared exclusively from Bangladesh. In other words, the Riverine People have been declared. Later, like-minded environmental organizations supported it. On 16 August 2014, the United Nations Water Flow Charter came into force. In May of that year, Vietnam became the 35th country to ratify the Charter in its legislature. After a three-month probationary period, the charter became international law in August. We were already trying to get Bangladesh to sign the charter. Unfortunately that did not happen. There is also an alliance in the country, where Riverine People is one of the members. Our friend and comrade. Tuhin Wadud first spoke to me about the idea that the charter, even if not signed in Bangladesh, has come into force as international law. As a result, we can celebrate that day. I immediately and gladly agree and from Riverine People we declare River Rights Day.
Tanmoy Imran: Is the day being celebrated?
Sheikh Rokon: Yes, it has been celebrated since 2015. Last year, outside Bangladesh, India and Nepal also celebrated this day. We are hopeful that in the future the day will be celebrated all over the world.
Tanmoy Imran: Will the river be saved just by observing the day?
Sheikh Rokon: We are not saying that. But celebrating River Day means firstly reminding the citizens and secondly the authorities of their responsibilities and duties regarding the river. Every year various programs, policies and projects are adopted or implemented. Their review is possible through the observance of the day. On the occasion of the day, issues related to the river were discussed in public and public opinion was formed. As a result, the rivers get the ultimate benefit. Since then the day is very important.
Tanmoy Imran: But observing the day does not mean fulfilling the responsibility by doing a simple task by eliminating the difficult task of protecting the river?
Sheikh Rokon: I strongly disagree with your idea that those who observe the day only observe the day. No more work. This is one of the many jobs. From Riverine People we are organizing citizens, doing research, writing. Even if someone is active with the day through social media, that is very important. If anyone just celebrates the day, that too should be welcomed with open arms. See, Rabindranath Tagore said ‘the burden of the world is not in your hands’. The work of river protection is a huge world. You can’t do everything. Do as much as you can. If others wake up through the observance of the day and come forward to fulfill their respective responsibilities, then the work of river protection as a whole will move forward. Its effect is falling somewhere. The river protection Indus will be created as soon as the dots are collected.
Tanmoy Imran: Along with this, legal and policy position is also important. What is the policy position of our state in river protection?
Sheikh Rokon: I would say, enough. The commitment to protect the environment has been added to our constitution through the Fifth Amendment. In addition, there are more than 30 laws, regulations and policies with which the river is directly related. There are about twenty government agencies, departments and agencies that work directly or indirectly with the river. Our High Court is very active and sensitive about rivers. I don’t know of any other country in the world that has taken such a positive position on the river with the High Court. What else do you want?
Tanmoy Imran: Increase research and writing on rivers
Do you need it?
Sheikh Rokon: Look, there has been enough law, research, writing about rivers. As we see, there are laws but not enforcement. The directions of the high court are also not followed in many cases. The goodwill towards the river at the policy-making level of the government, including the Hon’ble Prime Minister, is not reflected at the field level. As a result, I would say that there has been a lot of writing and reading about the river, now it is necessary to do it. That is why it is important and important to do a river service or a day to do for the river. River Day is important for that reason. To remind our citizens and authorities about their responsibilities and duties on the river.
Tanmoy Imran: In your own words, I wish you all the best.
Sheikh Rokon: Greetings to you and bdnews24.com. I really like the title of the special event you have organized on the occasion of Mujib Year. There is also talk of the river with Bangabandhu – ‘As long as the river Padma Jamuna Gauri Meghna flows.’