Hills are being ravaged in the south east district of Bandarban to make way for a housing project, much to the dismay of locals and environmentalists.
The project -- Bir Bahadur Nagar -- at Kalaghata on the outskirts of the town, is being built on 36 acres of hilly terrain. Interestingly, the government is making a connecting road cutting the hills for the housing project. Around 4-5 hills on about 5 acres of land have already been destroyed to build the two roads that will crisscross the housing plots, locals said.
Environmentalists fear that once the project is fully implemented, the environment of the area would be harmed.
The 36-acre land that belonged to the Bandarban Bhomong royal family was sold to four individuals in 2002 for Tk 36 lakh, said Nue Maung Prue Marma, a member of the family.
He added that the four persons promised that they would grow fruit on the hills. The four persons are Nur Mohammad, Tapon Kanti Sen, Mohsin, and Anil Kanti Das.
Nur, one of the four, said the four prepared a business plan to develop a housing project and sell the land by dividing it into plots of 8 decimals each in the same year.
They sold the plots to 448 persons of different backgrounds and professions for about Tk 26,000 a plot, he added. But some of the buyers were not eligible to own land in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, said Tha Chaw Prue Marma, local headman.
According to the Hill District Council Act 1989 and Chittagong Hill Tracts Regulation 1900, no land, including khas land, shall be leased out, settled with, purchased, sold, or transferred without prior approval of the concerned department.
Tha Chaw Prue Marma, the Balaghata Mouja headman, recently told this correspondent he issued illegal certificates for the persons to buy the plots as he was promised to be given a microbus. But he never received it from the housing association.
The project faced further legal complexities with the Bhomong family over land ownership. But the issues were resolved later with the involvement of Bahadur U Shwe Sing, state minister of CHT Affairs.
The project was renamed 'Bir Bahadur Nagar' at that time.
“The committee gave me two plots in the housing area, but those are not suitable as landslides will occur when the hills are cut for the roads. The roads cannot be built without hill cutting either,” he added.
Nur Mohammad, vice president of Bir Bahadur Nagor Plot Owners' Association and lead coordinator of the scheme, said they began handing over plots earlier this year. About 400 plots have already been given out.
A lottery decided which particular plot a member would receive, he added.
On levelling hills for construction of the roads, he said, “We have not razed hills to a great extent; we have just levelled some hillocks and ditches.”
“What we have done is for the sake of development work,” he added.
Aslam Hossain, deputy commissioner of Bandarban, said, "There is no hill cutting in Bir Bahadur Nagor area."
Dilip Kumar Banik, former deputy commissioner of Bandarban, said as private property, household can be built on that land by maintaining environmental balance.
“There is still a legal battle over the ownership of the land and no one seeks permission for any house project at there. If a person not authorised to purchase land in the hill track buys land, we will stop the procedure,” the former DC said.
On building roads by flattening the hills, he said the roads will benefit both residents of Bir Bahadure Nagar and outsiders by improving connectivity.
Md Isa, secretary of Bir Bahadur Nagor Plot Owners' Association and also a local ruling party leader, said, “A majority of the plots on hilly terrain have been handed over to plot owners, who are civil servants, politicians, businessmen, lawyers and journalists.”
Instead of putting a stop to these illegal activates, Chittagong Hill Tracts Development Board (CHTDB) and Bandarban municipality are each constructing a road through the area by razing the hills. The roads are about 10 feet wide and a kilometre long each.
Hills over almost 5 acres of land have already been cut.
The Bandarban Municipality is making a road under a project of Urban Governance Infrastructure Improvement Project (UGIIP3) of Asian Development Bank, said Rahim Chowdhury, another lead coordinator of the project and vice president of AL district unit.
Mong Shwe Khai Marma, executive engineer of Bandarban Municipality, said, “A portion of the hills will have to be cut under the plan to make a road in Bir Bahadur Nagor area.”
Yeaser Arafat, executive engineer of CHTDB Bandarban unit, said, “We are implementing the project at a cost of around Tk 60 lakh, following a directive of local lawmaker Bir Bahadur.”
The housing project does not have clearance from the Department of Environment, or approval from the deputy commissioner; about a dozen structures have illegally been built on the slopes, he said.
Destruction of the natural topography affects the ecology, biodiversity, and geological formation of the area, said environmentalists.
“The Bir Bahadur Nagor housing society has a powerful group at its helm that has been razing hills over 36 acres, causing environmental devastation,” said Zuamlian Amlai, president of Chittagong Hill Tracts Forest and Land Rights Protection Movement in Bandarban.
“With powerful people from all levels as beneficiaries, everybody turned a blind eye to the destruction done by the housing project while local administration is directly helping them.
DoE and other law enforcement agencies are not sincere in stopping the menace of hill cutting. Over the years, many hills have been destroyed in the hill town for housing projects. If this continues, the remaining hills would vanish soon.”
People should be made aware of the consequences of hill cutting; miscreants, regardless of who they are, must be given exemplary punishment, he added.