Stone traders occupy Jaflong schoolground
The Ballapunji Government Primary School is set in the heart of Jaflong, a popular tourist destination around 60 kilometres away from Sylhet city.
It is the only public school for children from hard-up families in Jaflong and the surrounding 10 villagers.
The operations of the school in Gowainghat upazila, however, are overshadowed by the loud buzzing sound of the stone-crushing machines.
Moreover, a stone trader has occupied the school ground for about year by piling up stone there, leaving students with no place to play.
At the entrance to the school lies heaps of crushed stone and sand. A stone crushing machine is also there, obstructing entry to the school building.
The institution, run by the Gowainghat upazila nirbahi officer, has been trying to build a boundary wall to mark its compound. But it is being hindered by the placement of heavy machinery, makeshift homes for the labourers and dumping of stone and sand.
And that's not all. A case has been pending with the High Court over the partial ownership of the school ground.
Although the government declared Jaflong area as an Ecologically Critical Area (ECA), the country's burgeoning construction industry added fuel to stone extraction in the area over the years. Stone traders continue to grab land either to extract stone by digging deeper into the ground, or to crush and dump stone and sand.
Dulal Miah, a stone trader, who has put up a sign inside the compound under the name of Shanto Enterprise, said he sold the stone, now piled up on the school ground, to a client a year ago, but he was yet to collect it.
Claiming part of the school ground his inherited property, another stone trader, Dilu Bakht, took the matter to a local court.
This disrupted the development of the school ground, said Mahfuzur Rahman, the headmaster.
“There was no boundary wall when the school was set up in 1978. That is why stone traders took the liberty of dumping stone inside the compound.”
The construction of the boundary wall began last year under the Primary Education Development Project, he added.
On August 23 last year, the High Court stayed the construction work, the headmaster said.
“We filed a writ petition with the High Court. The court on December 14 ordered continuation of the construction work.”
On January 14 this year, Dilu's lawyer sent a legal notice, saying the court issued an order staying the construction work again.
Dilu said the six bigha school land originally belonged to his aunt Kasindur Kashiani, who gave it to his mother Kabe Khasiani. His mother later gave one bigha land to the school, he claimed.
“School records show that my aunt gave the land to the school in 1973, but my aunt died in 1971. It was my mother who gave part of the land to the school authorities.”
He also claimed that he was not using the school ground to dump stones.
Neither the stone traders nor the school authorities could say about the ownership of the stone crushing machine on the school ground.
Bishwajit Kumar Paul, UNO of Gowainghat, said they received a legal notice from Dilu's lawyer, but there was no court order attached to it. “So we are legally not bound to stop the construction work.”
Although the stone crusher inside the school compound was currently out of order, around five to six crushers on the periphery of the school were causing serious noise pollution in the area. There are at least 100 stone crushers in the locality as well.
In January last year, the High Court ordered the government to remove all unauthorised stone crushing machines in five upazilas of Sylhet in the next three months to save public health and environment.
It also ordered the authorities concerned to implement the Stone Crushing Policy 2000, which stipulates that no stone crushing machine can be set up within the 500-metre radius of a town, upazila, municipality, academic institution and hospital.
Despite the noise pollution from stone crushers run from dawn to dusk, the school of around 500 students operates from 8:00am till 4:00pm, Headmaster Mahfuzur Rahman told The Daily Star.
According to him, the stone extraction work has another negative impact on the school.
“Some students prefer working in stone quarries to attending the school as they earn money from the job.”