Playground or fair ground?
When Shahi Eidgah field in Sylhet city was renovated and upgraded to “Sheikh Russel Mini Stadium” last year as part of the government's plan to build mini stadiums in all upazilas, residents were elated.
After all, other than sporting events, a playground offers all a place to breathe fresh air in the congested city.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the field on October 21, 2018 along with 65 other mini stadiums -- named after Sheikh Russel -- across the country.
Ironically, the very first event held at the stadium was not a sporting event, but rather the month-long “Sylhet International Trade Fair (SITF)” by Sylhet Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCI), from October 23 to December 21, 2018.
Since then, not a single sporting event has been organised at the field.
Even more perplexing is that another month-long SITF is being organised on the ground two months apart, denying children and youths their right to play.
This time, Sylhet Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SMCCI) is set to arrange a trade fair this month when parts of structures and debris from the last fair have not completely been removed yet.
In 2017, SMCCI held another trade fair on the ground.
According to organisers, the district administration, custodian of the field, allotted it to them following an approval letter from the Ministry of Commerce.
But according to the act to protect open fields, gardens and natural water reservoirs, leasing or renting them out for any other purpose is completely prohibited (section 5, act 36 of 2000). A person may face up to five years in jail or Tk 50,000 fine or both for breaking the law.
However, the field, located in Shahi Eidgah area, is being used as a fair venue for a decade. The administration, violating laws, continues to lease it for such events by terming the decision “an issue of commercial development”.
Locals and rights activists are also taken aback by the recurring trade fairs on the field. They said the field was developed for sports but continuous earth digging and erecting structures for such activities will eventually ruin the playground.
In late 2017, while the development work of the mini stadium was going on, SMCCI stopped it and organised its 4th SITF between December 23, 2017 and January 21, 2018.
Mentionable, SCCI is a 50-year-old organisation while SMCCI was formed in 2013, after being separated from the former over leadership issues.
The stadium's development work ended in October 2018.
National Sports Council (NSC), under the Ministry of Youth and Sports, developed the field by spending around Tk 50 lakh. It was then handed over to Sylhet Sadar Upazila Sports Association. NSC instructed the association not to use it for any purpose other than sports.
Hasan Ahmed Sarwar, deputy secretary and project director of NSC's Mini Stadium Project, said, “131 stadiums in 131 upazilas are being built to facilitate sporting activities. A policy is underway in this regard.”
Though the Ministry of Commerce permitted SMCCI to arrange the trade fair, provision for arranging the fair on a field requires that organisers must get separate permission from the local administration, he said.
Asked, Abdul Jabber Jalil, first vice-president of SMCCI, said, “We have taken permission from the commerce ministry to organise the fair. We have also taken prior permission from the administration to hold it on the field.”
“We know that sporting activities are being hampered, but we have no other alternative. We have been requesting the administration to allot a field for fair purposes only,” he said.
When asked why the city needs back-to-back trade fairs, he said, “We have been arranging the fair every year as per our schedule.”
On January 27 this year, SMCCI started work for the trade fair on the field.
The UNO of Sylhet Sadar upazila was present on the occasion.
Since then, work has been continuing in full swing. During a recent visit, this correspondent saw that bamboo stalls were being set up around the field and other structures were being erected in the middle. In addition, structures and debris from the previous fair were still there.
This correspondent could not get in touch with the UNO as she is on leave.
Contacted, acting UNO Rojina Akhter, also the assistant commissioner (land) of Sylhet Sadar upazila, said, “As far as I know, the district administration is the custodian of the stadium and they gave SMCCI permission to hold the fair on the field.”
Shandip Kumar Singha, additional deputy commissioner (general) of Sylhet, said the commerce ministry gave SMCCI permission to hold the fair.
This correspondent obtained a copy of the approval letter. The commerce ministry approved SMCCI's request on November 26, 2018 to hold a trade fair in the city in early 2019.
But the letter stipulates that if the organisation wanted to hold the fair on a field it would have to take permission from the authorities concerned.
When asked why the administration was allowing SMCCI to hold the fair on the field, the additional deputy commissioner said as per the ministry's approval, “we are bound to help the organisation in every way.”
Despite repeated attempts, this correspondent could not get in touch with officials of the commerce ministry.
So far, The Daily Star has published two reports over the issue -- “Fair playing foul” on November 11, 2017, and “Fair playing foul again” on October 22 last year. But it seems that repeated calls for protecting the field for sporting activities continue to fall on deaf ears.
Amatul Kibria Keya Chowdhury, former lawmaker from reserved seat for Sylhet-Habiganj and former member of the parliamentary standing committee on the Ministry of Youth and Sports, said, “It's a matter of disgrace that no sporting event was organised on the field since its opening.”
“Maybe the local administration is more concerned about commercial activities…,” she added.
Md Omar Faruque, joint secretary to the Ministry of Youth And Sports, said, “We have not developed the field for trade fairs. It was developed for sporting purposes. The local administration has been instructed to ensure that.”
“The Ministry of Commerce gave permission for holding the fair, but not on the field. When the fair was being planned, the administration should have taken an initiative to shift the venue,” he said.
A Sylhet court on February 7 served a seven-day show cause notice on SMCCI and all other respondents, asking why organising the fair on Sheikh Russel Mini Stadium should not be stopped.
Syed Yarob Ali Bappi, a resident of Khasdobir area, filed the petition as public interest litigation with Sylhet Senior Assistant District Judge (Sadar) on February 6.
Meanwhile, locals formed a human chain in front of the field on February 9 afternoon, protesting the move to hold a trade fair.