Giving away greenery
The heartland of a reserve forest in Moulvibazar is in the process of being leased out to a private company for tea plantation.
Several companies were vying for a lease of the 2,174.35 acres of land, disputed between the local Forest Department and administration following a controversial survey decision and subsequent filing of a case with the Land Survey Tribunal.
But one leading tea producer managed to get a green signal from the PMO with the condition of case disposal.
Forest officials and green activists squarely put the blame on local offices concerned for misleading the highest office, warning that such a lease would lead to the destruction of the whole reserve forest.
"If they strip off the middle part of the forest by leasing out for tea plantations or any other purpose, it will eventually destroy the whole reserve forest and the surrounding forest areas," SM Sazzad Hossain, deputy conservator of forests and divisional forest officer in Sylhet, told The Daily Star.
It was on October 24, 1921 when 12,019 acres of unsurveyed forestland in Sylhet district of Colonial Assam was declared the "Harargoj Reserve Forest".
As the total area was an estimate, natural landmarks defined the borders of forest and the Forest Department has been protecting it for almost a century.
After being declared a "reserve forest" under the Assam Forest Regulation 1891, it was expanded by several hundreds of acres over the years, until it stood at 12,768.80 acres in total.
Following a 1933 lawsuit by the Prithimpassa Estate, 1,987.85 acres of land was de-reserved from the forest area in 1937. It was later acquired and handed over to the Forest Department.
Though there is no documentation of re-reserving this land, that 1,987.85 acres is being protected by the Forest Department as part of the reserve forest.
In the 2013 digital land survey, 2,174.35 acres of land from the middle of the reserve forest, now under Moulvibazar district, was recorded by the office of the deputy commissioner as "khas land" and classified as "hillock".
Of the total of 13,648.01 acres of this reserve forest recorded by the 2013 survey, only 11,473.66 acres were recorded in the name of the Forest Department.
At the time, the Forest Department protested the classification and wrote several memorandums to the responsible authorities.
"The land survey was wrong in all ways possible. They did not consider the landmarks, changed the classification, and chose the middle of the forest for an ill purpose," said Deputy Conservator SM Sazzad Hossain.
To settle the dispute, Md Abdul Mannan, the then director general of the Land Record and Survey Department, visited the reserve forest in 2014.
In his report, which The Daily Star obtained, he stated in favour of the Forest Department's points about the nature of the land and the wrong classification.
He said only the 1,987.85 acres of land from the side of the forest -- which was de-reserved following the 1933 lawsuit -- can be recorded as khas land, but none from the middle part of the reserved area.
Not only the recorded reserve forest, which cannot be leased in any case, all surrounding acquired forest also must be classified as unleasable, added the report.
He also instructed Sylhet's zonal settlement officer to identify the officials who intentionally changed classification from "forest" to "hillock", in order to take departmental action.
But these instructions were not followed, according to Forest Department sources and land ministry records seen by The Daily Star, and the land remains "khas" and classified as "hillock" which can be leased.
In 2015, to correct the record, the Forest Department filed a case with the Land Survey Tribunal of Moulvibazar against the deputy commissioner, director general of the Land Record and Survey Department, and assistant commissioner (land) of Juri upazila.
ATTEMPT TO LEASE
Several tea companies have shown interest in taking hold of the disputed part of the reserve forest, since it was recorded as "khas land" in 2013.
Recently, a prominent tea company applied for a long term lease of the disputed land; around 1,000 acres each for expansion of their tea plantations under two subsidiary companies and another 169.59 acres for the mother company.
In response to a letter of the company's chairman on January 29 this year, Jashim Uddin Haider, director (14) at the Prime Minister's Office, wrote to the secretary of the land ministry on February 18.
In his letter, the director stated that the decision over the land can only be taken after the disposal of the case under trial at the Land Survey Tribunal.
He also stated the prime minister instructed that expansion of tea plantation will eventually benefit the country economically and initiative can be taken to expand the tea plantation on the land.
This newspaper has obtained copies of the letters.
Earlier on November 26, 2018, the PMO asked the UNO of Juri upazila to examine the land.
The UNO in response wrote to the PMO on January 23, 2019, stating that the land is unused, covered with bamboo and uncultivated with no habitat of human, sources said.
Following the PMO letter, the land ministry held meetings on August 9 and 23 in this regard where representatives of all stakeholders were present, but no formal meeting resolutions have been published yet.
Contacted on September 24, Md Muksodur Rahman Patwary, secretary of the land ministry, said, "We've prepared a committee in this regard who will submit a report soon. After that, as per the recommendation of the report, we'll decide about the land considering all legal grounds."
Mallika Dey, additional deputy commissioner (revenue) of Moulvibazar, said, "As the case is under trial, we've submitted our arguments to the tribunal and hope to win the case as per how it is recorded. As the matter is being considered at the ministry level, we will obey any given order by the ministry."
Syeda Rizwana Hasan, eminent environmental lawyer, thinks when a case is pending at the tribunal, such a recommendation may influence the judgment.
She said not expanding a tea estate but protecting a forest is the constitutional responsibility of the government.
"We have many tea gardens but only one of such forest. The government should protect it with priority," added Rizwana, also the chief executive of Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association (Bela).
The disputed 2,174.35-acre land lies in two forest beats -- Sagarnal and Gazipur.
It consists of a part of 3,279-acre Sagarnal natural bamboo garden and most of the 780 acres of Gogalichhara natural bamboo garden.
Moreover, there are rattan gardens, social forestry plantations, natural waterways and wildlife in the disputed land.
Ziaul Hasan, secretary of the ministry of environment, forest and climate change, said, "There are disputes over many such forests all over the country and we are struggling to get all the disputed areas back to the forest. But any forestland should no way be leased for any other purposes.
"I am not officially informed about the progress of the dispute and the initiative to lease out the disputed land. I will look into the matter."