No amount of fines has been able to stop businesses from cutting hills in Chattogram’s Mirsarai and Sitakunda upazilas, putting the environment at risk.
Over the past three years, the Department of Environment (DoE) fined various business, including six renowned ones, for cutting hills on different occasions.
Between 2017-19, the Chattogram DoE conducted 19 mobile court drives and filed cases against those accused of hill-cutting.
The cases came after the DoE prepared a list of companies involved in the illegal act in 2018. The Daily Star obtained a copy of that list.
Despite the crackdown, however, the hills continue to be razed to the ground.
Visiting the hills in Barobkunda area of Sitakunda upazila on November 30, some companies were found cutting those.
Chattogram-based MH Group, Dhaka-based FR Refinery Pvt Limited and a tyre factory were found to have fenced off areas and were razing the hills between those.
Contacted earlier this month, Mohammed Raj, group coordinator of MH Group, said some people had cut the hill adjacent to their factory area.
“We did not cut any hill…we just fenced off the area which belonged to us,” he added.
This was an excuse heard before.
According to the list prepared by the Chattogram DoE, six companies -- Abul Khair Group, KSRM, PHP Float Glass Industries Limited, Golden Ispat, Elias Brothers (MEB bricks) and BSRM -- had destroyed around 1,60,000 square feet of hills in the two upazilas.
All six were fined in 2017 or 2018. Some were fined on both the years as they had not stopped the hill-cutting.
Imrul Kader Bhuiyan, spokesman of Abul Khair Group, which had been fined Tk 8,36,000 in 2018, however, had told this correspondent in May that the fine stemmed from a “misunderstanding”.
According to him too, some other people had cut the hills.
“A government organisation cut the hill adjacent to our factory, but as we could not prove that, they slapped the fine on us,” he said.
This newspaper could not verify Imrul’s claim.
Representatives from the other companies accused refused to comment.
FINES THAT DON’T WORK
Mohammad Moazzem Hossain, regional director of Chattogram DoE, told The Daily Star in May that most of the companies in the area make commitments that they won’t cut hills whenever they are fined.
Later the same companies are found to have been cutting the hills secretly, he added.
Golden Ispat, BSRM, KSRM, and PHP were fined twice in 2017 and 2018, while Abul Khair Group was fined in 2018 and Elias Brother in 2017.
Of these, BSRM cut the most hills, with the steel giants held responsible by the Chattogram DoE for destroying 1,05,000 square feet of hills in Mirsarai upazila to make way for a power plant named Chittagong Power Company Limited. The company was fined Tk 52 lakh.
Elias Brothers, Golden Ispat and Abul Khair Group were held responsible for cutting 21,000 square feet, taking the total hill area cut to 1,53,000 square feet, as per the DoE data obtained by The Daily Star.
KSRM were charged with razing 5,000 square feet at Sitakunda, while PHP Float Glass Factory flattened 22,000 square feet in the same area.
The DoE fined KSRM Tk 5 lakh; PHP Tk 4 lakh; Golden Ispat Tk 4.8 lakh; and Abul Khair Group Tk 8.36 lakh.
Elias Brother was fined Tk 24.5 lakh, a much higher amount than others, as they were charged with cutting an entire hillock.
As the hills are considered khas land (government land), almost all of those have been preyed upon by the big companies, with authorities choosing not to do more than fining them.
Apart from imposing fines, the DoE has two other options: conducting mobile courts if magistracy power is granted from the cabinet division and filing cases against the perpetrators in the environment court.
If a relevant case goes to court, the perpetrators could face 10 years in jail provided the DoE are able to prove the allegation.
Most of the time, however, the DoE cannot prove the allegation and the companies accused also deny all wrongdoing.
Another important aspect in this is the amount of influence big companies wield.
Sources within the DoE said the companies have a lot of clout and they use it to prevent further action from being taken. This allegation is often repeated by officials, especially when it comes to bigger conglomerates who keep in touch with higher-ups of the administration.
Contacted earlier this year, Bipul Chakma, deputy general manager of Golden Ispat, told The Daily Star that DoE had fined them for cutting a portion of the hill adjacent to their factory.
“After the fine, we complied with the DoE’s instruction…,” he said.
Tapan Sen Gupta, executive director of BSRM, told The Daily Star that the environment department had fined them without having any proper ground to do.
He did not want to comment further on the matter. The PHP Float Glass Factory and KSRM declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the locals around the area point fingers at the companies.
“PHP expanded its factory by cutting hills and KSRM built a scrap warehouse by doing the same thing. They are not cutting hills right now. But the hills which lie just adjacent to their factory could be flattened any time later,” a local of Amthola, preferring anonymity, told The Daily Star.
Kamal Hossen, professor of Institute of Forestry and Environmental science at Chittagong University told The Daily Star these hills were very important for the environment, adding that Bangladesh had 12 percent hills against its total landmass.
“The majority of the hills are in Chattogram and in CHT, and 80 percent of biodiversity mostly depends on the hills. When hills are cut indiscriminately, the nature loses its ecological balance,” he added.
Big companies are entering remote areas of Hill Tracts to cut hills to make ways for their business structures contributing to the drying up of streams and endangering lives of ethnic groups, he said.
He observed that rampant hill cutting had intensified the landslide incident in greater Chattogram.
“As most of our hills are sandy and cutting those causes soil erosion blocking natural rain flow which results in waterlogging in the port city,” he said.
The DoE Director said the owners of big companies, too, need a sound and healthy environment to live. The earlier they focus, the better it is for all of us.
“Our stance will be hard from now on if monetary punishment does not work,” Moazzem said.