The public administration ministry is seeking 700 acres of protected forest, an ecologically critical area, in Shuknachhari of Cox's Bazar to build a civil service academy.
It comes at a time when forests on more than 6,000 acres in southern Cox's Bazar have been razed following the Rohingya influx.
The ministry wants to set up Bangabandhu Civil Service Academy in Shuknachhari, about 2.5km south of Kolatoli Beach and on the east of the marine drive, to train Bangladesh civil service cadres. It has proposed another name for the institution -- Bangabandhu Academy of Public Administration.
Sources said the name of Bangabandhu was used in both the proposed names so that the project could jump through bureaucratic hoops with relative ease.
On behalf of the public administration ministry, the deputy commissioner of Cox's Bazar sent the proposal to the land ministry towards the end of last year.
Later, the land ministry asked for opinions from the Directorate of Environment (DoE) and Directorate of Forest (DoF), said sources.
Asked, Cox's Bazar Deputy Commissioner Kamal Uddin, told The Daily Star that the plan was in its preliminary stage.
“The issue of land allotment is still pending. It has been planned by the public administration ministry. It will be a specialised training institute for newly-recruited BCS cadres, similar to the Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute in India,” he said.
The aim would be to empower them with skills to serve the nation, he said.
Contacted, Nazmul Ahsan, director (environmental clearance) of the DoE, said the public administration ministry had not yet applied for the environmental clearance for the project.
“But we issued no objection certificate [NOC] for the acquisition of land with the condition that they will not cut the hills and damage the environment,” he said.
In a letter to the environment ministry recently, the DoF said forests on more than 6,000 acres have been destroyed and forest resources worth Tk 1,865 crore damaged following the Rohingya influx.
The Rohingyas, who fled persecution in Myanmar, built temporary homes on the forestland.
The letter also said the degree of the forest devastation was on the rise to meet the fuel demand of the refugees, leading to further depletion of the forest in the country's southeast.
“Besides, 2.12 lakh toilets, 20 warehouses to store food and 13km of electric wire would be set up, 30km of road would be constructed and 20km of canal would be excavated in the vicinity of the forest at Ukhia and Teknaf. If done, there will be nothing left as forest in south division of Cox's Bazar,” the letter added.
Experts said taking away forest land on purpose when the country is losing forests fast due to Rohingya settlements would make things a lot worse.
Shafiul Alam Chowdhury, chief conservator of forest, declined to comment on the proposed academy.
Asked why the site was selected, secretary to the public administration ministry Foyez Ahmed said, “If the environment and forest ministry sends us any objection, we will review it.
“We need forest, we also need the admin training academy. So, we will do whatever is good for the country's interest,” he added.
Before the influx began, there were nearly 1,07,000 acres of forestland, including 89,149 acres of reserve forest and 18,359 acres of protected forest, in southern Cox's Bazar, officials said.
In a gazette issued in 1999, the environment and forest ministry declared Shuknachhari, the proposed site for the academy, an ecologically critical area (ECA).
The area is frequented by Asian elephants, listed as endangered species by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The forest also includes at least 12 species of trees and shrubs; various species of birds, wild monkeys, wild hogs, pythons and other snakes, among other animals.
During a visit to Shuknachhari recently, this correspondent saw a signboard, with the name of the academy. Locals said it was put there nearly three months ago.
The land record and settlement manual prepared by the land ministry says protected forest is non-leasable.
Interestingly, there is no mention of the word “non-leasable” on the Khatiyan (ledger) of the protected forest of Cox's Bazar. Recently, the director general of directorate of land record and survey instructed the settlement officer of the district to amend the “errors” in the documents.
It has not been executed yet.
Section 17 of the National Land Use Policy-2001 insists that such forestland should be conserved, maintained, and expanded.
According to a land ministry circular issued in 1990, the hills and its slopes in Chattogram division must be protected for forestation and cannot be leased out.
State acquisition and tenancy act-1950 prevents forest from being leased out and declared forest land as non-retainable property.
In 2018, a land ministry circular requested the deputy commissioners of district not to lease out any protected forest, given the scarcity of the forest land.
Talking to The Daily Star, Prof Mohammad Kamal Hossen of the Institute of Forestry and Environmental Science at Chittagong University said leasing out the land would set a bad example for forest conservation.
“It is a huge area, 700 acres. We have a constitutional obligation to protect and conserve forests. But apparently, everyone is trying to ignore it,” he said.
Eminent wildlife expert Reza Khan said the government should not build any structure in the forest area.
“Even if the government wants to build any structure to maintain the reserve forest, it should be built outside the forest,” he added.
On Sunday, the Supreme Court directed the government to immediately stop acquisition of land at the hills and hillocks of Jhilongja Mouja in Cox's Bazar for a residential project for officials and staffers of Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB).
The proposed project site is in the same union.
A four-member bench of the Appellate Division of the SC led by Chief Justice Syed Mahmud Hossain passed the order after hearing a leave to appeal petition filed by Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (Bela) against a High Court order.