Tragedy In Hills: It was written on the wall | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 15, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:35 PM, June 15, 2017

Tragedy In Hills: Death toll 143

It was written on the wall

Increasing settlements, destruction of forest over the years made hills vulnerable to landslide

It was just a matter of time before a tragedy of this scale befell the country's hill region.

The way people felled trees, cleared forest for commercial plantation and cultivation, and built houses on hill slopes in the Chittagong region, something disastrous was bound to happen, say experts.

And eventually, horror struck the hills on Monday.

Landslides resulting mainly from torrential rain claimed the lives of 143 people in Rangamati, Bandarban, Khagrachhari, Chittagong and Cox's Bazar over the last two days.

Firemen using a high pressure hose to wash away the mud to recover bodies at a house in Jubo Unnayan area of Rangamati town yesterday. Photo: Prabir Das/ Sanjoy Kumar Barua

It was nothing but a manmade disaster, experts noted.

In recent times, incidents of landslide after heavy downpour have become quite common in the hill region where thousands of people live in grave danger. 

Experts pointed out that the government policy and actions regarding the CHT caused a rise in population in the region over the last few decades, leading to environmental degradation.

During the 1947 partition of India, Bangalees accounted for only 2.5 percent of the CHT population. But the number rose to 48.57 percent in 1991 from 35 percent in 1981 and 10 percent in 1951.

In his book “Alienation of the Lands of Indigenous Peoples”, researcher Shapan Adnan mentions that around four lakh people from different parts of Bangladesh were given the opportunity to settle in the CHT under a strategic population transfer plan during 1978-1984. 

Within a decade from 1981, the CHT population increased by 67.95 percent.

During the period, the hill population grew by 6.79 percent annually compared to the annual national population growth of 2.17 percent.

Earlier in the 60s, the government built the Kaptai dam, leading to displacement of one lakh indigenous people and inundation of one-fifth of the cultivable land in Rangamati and a large portion of the nearby forest. More than half of the people in the area had to take shelter in the forest. 

“It was a major blow to the environment of Chittagong Hill Tracts,” says a research paper published by the Association for Land Reform and Development in 1995.

Bangladesh Army personnel conducting rescue and recovery operations in Lemujiri area of Bandarban. Photo: Prabir Das/ Sanjoy Kumar Barua

Phillip Gain, author of a number of books on environmental issues, said the landslides and subsequent casualties in the CHT are “a kind of reprisal of nature against humans, who have exhausted it too much”.

"In recent times, vegetation on hills has been cleared indiscriminately, and the hills have been sporadically cut to accommodate people and to promote commercial plantation. Such human activities have upset the nature. Now we see the severe consequences in landslides, damages to houses, and deaths. I have no doubt that more scourge of nature is yet to come,” he said.

Development activities such as construction of roads without enough impact assessment are also a factor in landslides occurring in the CHT, he said.

 Forests have been cleared in most parts of Rangamati town and also areas around it. Thousands of people are now living there at a grave risk.

"The Rangamati town was developed on hilltops. Thousands of people live on slopes of hills on both sides of roads in Rangamati town and surrounding areas. If those people are not moved from risky hill slopes, it would be hard for the government to improve the situation," said Md Rafiqul Islam, divisional forest officer in Rangamati.

A mother and daughter reach Ghagrabazar near Rangamati town from Dhaka. They rushed there after hearing that three of their relatives were killed in Monday night's mudslides. Photo: Prabir Das/ Sanjoy Kumar Barua

In reply to a query, he said the forest department didn't plant trees in the CHT region in the last 50 years.

"The hills that belong to the forest department still have some tress. But most of the hills owned by individuals are totally cleared of trees. Pineapple and other crops are grown commercially on those," Rafiqul said.

Hill cutting without government approval is banned under the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Act 1995 (amended in 2010). But this illegal activity goes unabated as the authorities concerned appear reluctant to take necessary action.

People build houses on risky hill slopes right under the nose of the administration but it hardly takes any action.

Zuamlian Amlai, president of Chittagong Hill Tracts Forest and Land Rights Protection Movement (Bandarban Chapter), said, "Almost 20 percent of the CHT population lives on hill slopes or at the foot of hills."

The recent influx of Rohingyas from Myanmar has made matters even worse.

It's the settlers, not hill people, who cut hills to build houses. Recently, Rohingyas have moved to these areas in Bandarban and built houses on hill slopes, he said.

Md Muzaffar, who lives on a hill slope in Bandarban's Islampur area, said, “I have come here from Barisal. I know it's dangerous to live here but I have no other place to go. I am a poor man.”

Like him, many people live on hill slopes in Bandarban's Kalaghata, Lemujiri, Banorupa Para, Lungi Para and Faitong areas.

In Cox's Bazar, around one lakh people live on slopes of hills that belong to the forest department.

There was a dense forest in Borochhora area near Kalatoli a few decades ago. Elephants were spotted there at that time. But now around 5,000 people live in around 1,000 houses there and most of them are at risk of landslide.

Deepak Sharma Dipu, president of Forest and Hills Conservation Society, said, "Already 40 percent of the forestland in Cox's Bazar has been grabbed. Around one lakh Rohingyas are illegally living in hills and in forestland."

 Saiful Islam Chowdhury, secretary general of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon, said there is not even one unpopulated hill in Cox's Bazar.

Sardar Shariful Islam, assistant director of the Department of Environment in Cox's Bazar, said six teams of the department have been asking people to move to safer places from risky hill slopes in the district. But they were not getting good response from the dwellers.

Contacted, Bir Bahadur U Shwe Sing, state minister for Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs, said, “It was a manmade disaster that cost more than a hundred lives in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

“After Cyclone Mora, we directed the district administration of the three hill districts several times to alert those living on hills risking their lives.”

It was the administration's responsibility to ensure safety of these people, but it failed, he said.

[Our Bandarban and Cox's Bazar correspondents contributed to this report.]

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