Illegal sand lifting from major rivers in Pabna district, especially Padma and Jamuna, has continued for years, although the district administration officially stopped leasing the sand fields in 2010 following an injunction by the court.
With the growing demand for sand due to an increase in development work in the last few years, influential people indulged in massive sand extraction at different points of the two mighty rivers, stakeholders said.
The unplanned sand lifting, involving businesses worth hundreds of crores of taka every year, has resulted in erosion in the riverbank areas, said locals.
"We had cultivable land covering an area of five bighas on the bank of the Padma, but the river has devoured three bighas of it in the last five years. Mindless sand lifting from the river is causing this," said college student Hosain Ali, also a farmer of Bahirchar village in Pabna's Chartarapur union.
Hundreds of villagers in the riverbank areas face similar problems due to indiscriminate sand lifting in last few years.
During a recent visit, this correspondent learnt that around 200 dredgers operating in a three-kilometre area of the river at Bahirchar, Kolchari, Hugladangi, Shukchar, Aria Gohailbari, Dighi Gohailbari, Char Sujanagar and Vadudangi in the border areas of Pabna Sadar and Sujanagar upazilas extract three to five lakh CFT of sand daily.
The perpetrators are somehow not very bothered by protests from locals.
"Chairman of Varara union parishad (UP) Abu Sayeed, Chairman of Chartarapur UP Rabiul Haque Tutul and dozens of Awami League leaders in Pabna Sadar and Sujanagar upazilas are involved in the illegal sand business in the Padma over the last four years but the local administration hardly takes action," Hosain Ali said.
Contacted, Varara UP Chairman Abu Sayeed claimed that he is not involved in extracting sand from the river.
"Demand for sand has rapidly increased in last few years due to several development works, especially the construction of Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant and Padma Bridge. And so, sand traders are extracting sand from the river to supply to the development project sites," Abu Sayeed said.
"As there is no official step to lease the sand fields, the traders are extracting sand in this way. Many influential people including ruling party leaders might be involved in it outside my area," he said.
Many public representatives in the river areas, mostly local AL men, are directly or indirectly involved with sand lifting from the rivers while a section of political bigwigs and corrupt officials are backing them, said several affected people.
Talking with journalists, Rabiul Haque Tutul, chairman of Chartarapur UP, said sand traders backed by local administration are running their illegal businesses in the area.
The Daily Star correspondent made an inspection in the 60-km area of the Padma from Sara Ghat in Ishwardi upazila to Najirganj point of Sujanagar upazila in Pabna during the last few weeks and found frequent sand lifting at several points.
Hundreds of dredgers are engaged in the act.
Illegal sand lifting is also rampant at different places of the Jamuna River in Pabna's Bera upazila.
Visiting Nagarbari, Panchakola and Mohonganj on the Jamuna, this correspondent found that scores of small boats have been turned into dredgers by setting shallow power pumps for extracting sand from the river.
"There are seven officially approved sand fields in Padma and Jamuna rivers in Pabna. The district administration stopped leasing the sand fields due to an injunction by the court in 2010. But the illegal sand traders continued extracting sand from different places with dredgers," said an official of the district administration, seeking anonymity.
Encroaches extract approximately 20 to 25 lakh CFT sand from different points of the major rivers in the district and it brings around Tk 2 crore daily, he said.
Talking with The Daily Star, Pabna Deputy Commissioner Kabir Mahamud said the district administration launched many drives in last few years and fined the sand lifters and damaged the dredgers, but the illegal act could not be stopped.
"We promptly conduct drives if there is any specific information. Recently the district administration seized a huge quantity of illegal sand and sold it for Tk 1.1 crore through an auction," he said.
"Sand lifting is necessary to maintain navigability of the river. Dredging up to five -foot circumference in a certain area is acceptable but the sand lifters hardly follow the rule. Continuous sand lifting with dredgers at a place creates big holes, which lead to massive erosion in the river bank areas," said Md Johurul Haque, executive engineer of Water Development Board, Pabna.
The sand fields must be brought under a proper management system, he said.