Every day many children make their way to schools in Kamalganj upazila of Moulvibazar, Sylhet, under thick, black clouds of smoke being pumped out of tall chimneys of the nearby brick kilns.
They are exposed to the poisonous fumes that present many health hazards. Guardians and school authorities in the upazila are perturbed by the lack of safety measures for the students, many of whom are very young.
In hopes of a solution, locals regularly reach out to Mohammad Mahmudul Hoque, the upazila nirbahi officer (UNO) of Kamalganj, to demand relocation of the brick kilns that are immediately next to the schools.
Jamil Ahmed, a student of class four at Munshibazar Government Primary School, said, “The air smells of smoke when we are at school, making it difficult to breathe sometimes. Ash even settles on the benches and we have to wipe it off before we sit.”
Dr Md Yahya, upazila health and family planning officer in Kamalganj, said the air near the kilns was heavy with toxins which lead to various health problems like persistent coughs, allergies and pneumonia.
Humayun Kabir, the head-teacher at Kamalganj Girls High School, contacted the brick kiln owners to relocate their kilns but no one has paid heed.
He also raised the matter at the monthly meeting of local authorities at the upazila as well, he told The Daily Star.
Nurul Mohaimin Milton, general secretary of Environment Journalist Forum, Moulvibazar, said several schools in the upazila were affected by the activities of the kilns.
Some schools that have neighbouring kilns are Begum Jebunesa Government Primary School in Jalalia, Longurpar Government Primary School, Kaliprosad High School and Sajedabari Kindergarten School.
However, there are instances where the brick fields were set up before the schools.
Musaddek Ahmed Manik, president of the brick kilns owners association in Kamalganj, said, “Some brick fields were set up a long time ago and are running their businesses legally.”
After suffering for long, residents of ten villages-- including Ballarpar, Longurpar, Bhandarigaon, Dholaipar and Jamirkun-- brought out a procession on January 28 and submitted an application to upazila authorities to demand relocation of the brick kilns.
The UNO of Kamalganj has requested Deputy Commissioner of Moulvibazar Tofail Islam to cancel the licences of the kilns that disrupt school activities and pose a risk to students' health.
In response, the office of the deputy commissioner has formed a committee to investigate the matter.
Shaheda Akther, coordinator of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association in Sylhet, said many people were setting up brick kilns illegally.
The environment would be severely damaged as brick kilns had been established on farmlands, near human habitation or educational institutions, she added.
However, Niaz Murshed Raju, owner of Jalalabad Brickfield that is right next to Kamalganj Girls High School, said, “We follow all necessary procedures to run the brick field legally.”