Million years on rock record
Jaflong, a popular tourist destination, is rightly revered as the Daughter of Nature for its natural splendour.
In the midst of that breath-taking beauty, there lies a live museum of rock record from a very ancient age on geological time scale.
Those are not the regular rocks rolling down the streams from hills of Meghalaya. Formed at least 27 million years before the first human ancestor appeared on earth, they are pieces of geological history.
The bed of rocks, right at the eastern bank of the river Dauki, is commonly referred as the Eocene Sylhet Limestone, which has been an important subject of geological research and study for decades.
As the rocks are exposed to the surface, and Jaflong as a whole has become vulnerable due to uncontrolled extraction of stones, geologists and environments have been calling for protection of these precious resources.
An initiative to establish the country's first geological museum at the site was also planned years ago. But the progress is slow as the authorities are yet to finish acquisition of land which is under threat of grabbing and illegal mineral extraction.
Dr Syed Humayun Akhter, geology professor at Dhaka University, said, "In 2009, when I was the chairman of the department, I urged the then secretary of the Energy and Mineral Resources Division to protect the geo-heritage and establish a geological museum there."
He added, "The geo-resource visible near the river was exposed millions of years ago, when the Indian plate collided with the Eurasian plate. It has been a research ground for students of geology and natural science, even for the petroleum and mining industry experts. Such geo-heritage should not be destroyed by any means but must be protected."
After Dr Humayun's letter, the Energy and Mineral Resources Division instructed the Geological Survey of Bangladesh (GSB) to take necessary steps in this regard.
A committee led by the then director general Dr Nehal Uddin was formed with Dr Humayun and officials from different government wings as its members.
The committee in its report in May 2010 recommended protecting the geo-heritage and establishing a geological museum there, said Md Nuruddin Sarker, director (geology) of GSB.
"In the first phase, we are acquiring 10 acres of land and will start the acquiring process of the rest of the land later. The committees formed regarding the museum will start working for a detailed project after the land acquiring is completed," he added.
In 2015, Jaflong, in Sylhet's Gowainghat upazila, was declared an ecologically critical area by the Department of Environment.
Later in January 2017, the Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources declared 22.59 acres of land -- where the Eocene Sylhet Limestone is exposed -- as geological heritage.
That 10 acres of land to be acquired for the museum is within the geo-heritage site.
Recently, a group of businessmen put up a signboard on the land declared as geo-heritage, claiming the High Court gave them permission to extract mineral resources from the site.
A total of 78.27 acres of land, which includes 6.58 acres from the geo-heritage, was leased to Jalalabad Lime Manufacturers and Trading Association and Bulbul Brothers decades ago and the lease was cancelled by the government in 1991.
They filed a write petition in 2009 against the cancellation and the HC ruled in their favour. But in 2015, the verdict was scrapped following an appeal by the state.
They recently filed another writ and put up a signboard.
In a memorandum last month, the then then director general of Bureau of Mineral Development Md Zafar Ullah, stated the importance of the land and asked the solicitor of the Law and Justice Division of the government to take necessary steps to appeal against the writ petition.
Advocate Shah Shaheda Akhter, regional coordinator for Sylhet of Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association (Bela), said, "In the recent writ, the traders hid information like the area is an ecologically critical area and it is a geological heritage site. They also hid the writ of 2009 and the judgment.
"Moreover, the court only served show-cause notices upon government offices to know the reason for cancelling the lease but did not give them permission to extract resources. Yet, they put up the signboard illegally."
Contacted, Afsar Uddin, managing director of Jalalabad Lime Manufacturers and Trading Association, said, "We have our claim over 78.27 acres in Jaflong and only a small part of it is in the land designated for the museum. Moreover, that's not even the part they are going to acquire.
"We didn't hide anything and it's the responsibility of the authorities concerned to tell the court whether it is an ECA or geological heritage."
"Following our writ," he said, "the court ordered a status quo and we've taken possession of the land. If the authority thinks to protect the land, they can legally do so and if they want to acquire it, they can still acquire it from us legally."
Md Aslam Uddin, additional deputy commissioner (revenue) of Sylhet, said, "We've only a few steps of formalities to be completed to acquire the land for [the museum] and will settle any legal claims or objections accordingly soon."
Dr Syed Humayun Akhter said, "If we could successfully present the geological history of Bangladesh with proper 3D modelling in the museum, it will be a splendid work. As thousands of people come to visit Jaflong, they will get a sight of our geological heritage along with the nature.
"Watching such rare geo-heritage in the open and learning about how our land was formed millions of years ago, young students will be interested in natural science and that might eventually create some natural scientists someday."
Dr Moha Sher Ali, director general (additional charge), Geological Survey of Bangladesh, said, "Considering the importance of the geo-heritage, the initiative of establishing the geological museum was taken and now it is progressing fast. We've urged the district administration several times to complete the land acquiring process fast so that we can take further steps."