A mangrove forest at Sitakunda upazila in Chattogram was leased to a private company last year to build a ship-breaking yard, violating a Supreme Court directive, existing laws and the national forest policy.
Several letters from the forest department earlier had informed the deputy commissioner’s office that the forest was “notified” under Section-4 of Forest Act-1927. A forest is “notified” when it is under process of being declared as a reserve forest.
The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in 2013 issued a directive to the deputy commissioner of Chattogram not to lease out the “notified” forest to any person, company or organisation for any purpose.
Yet the district administration leased out at least 7.1 acres of the forest land in Abdullah Ghata to the BBC Steel Limited.
To facilitate the lease, the forest was shown as a charland in the Bangladesh Ledger survey by Sitakunda upazila nirbahi officer, according to documents obtained by The Daily Star.
Following a writ petition, the High Court yesterday issued a rule asking the authorities concerned to explain why the lease won’t be declared illegal, and imposed six months’ stay on the effectiveness of the lease contract.
Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association, which filed the petition seeking cancellation of the lease, told The Daily Star that the leased area was clearly a “notified” forest.
The National Environmental Committee in 2010 stated that forest land “notified” under the forest act would be non-leasable, she mentioned.
The land, part of the 400 acres of forest created in 1983-1984 by the Coastal Forest Division, was “notified” in 1986, according to the Revisional Survey ledger.
In 1996, a land ministry circular prohibited transfer, mutation and amendment of land records of the forest till its declaration as a reserve forest. It was issued to all deputy commissioners of the country.
This newspaper obtained a copy of a letter, sent to the deputy commissioners of 10 coastal districts including Chattogram, which said no “notified” forest can be leased out.
But nothing could stop the lease.
Finalised on December 24 last year, the lease also violated the National Forest Policy-1994 that states a forest will not be allowed to be used for any purpose other than forestation given the scarcity of forests against the nation’s need.
Just a month before this, the environment, forest and climate change ministry sent a letter to the land ministry, requesting them to direct the Chattogram deputy commissioner not to lease out the mangrove forest to any person.
The letter read that if it was leased out to a ship-breaking yard, it would pollute the nearby forest and inflict damage on coastal biodiversity.
‘UNO WAS LYING’
Chattogram Deputy Commissioner Md Elias Hossen did not pick up the phone since April 4 as this correspondent tried to reach him for his comment in this regard.
Contacted, UNO Miltan Roy told The Daily Star that he was not aware that it was a notified forest. “When forest officials approached me, I asked them for necessary papers in support of their claims. But they could not produce any,” he added.
Golam Mawla, divisional officer of Coastal Forest Division, alleged that the UNO was lying.
“He did not want any documents or papers. When I informed him about the gazette regarding the forest, he expressed ignorance about it. It is quite shocking when a government official shows such ignorance,” he told this newspaper on April 4.
This forest was leased out illegally, he categorically said.
“We sat with the deputy commissioner of Chattogram to convey our concern and request him to cancel the lease. I wrote to my higher authorities and sought police help to stop the construction [ of the ship-breaking yard].”
Forest officials say the UNO along with Additional Deputy Commissioner (revenue) of Chattogram Mohammed Delwar Hossen visited the spot on July 25 last year, and during this visit the two were told that the land was in fact a “notified” forest.
Contacted, ADC Delwar said forest officials could not show any documents that prove the land was a “notified” forest. Claiming it verbally does not prove that it was forest land, he added.
“The land we leased out is a pure khas land according to the land records we have,” he said on May 7 when he was the acting deputy commissioner of Chattogram as the DC was out of the country.
Kashem Raja, the proprietor of BBC Steel, had applied for the lease to the deputy commissioner a year and half ago, and the forest was leased to them in December last year on 34 conditions.
Talking to The Daily Star on April 3, Kashem said he got the land following “due procedures” and paying revenue to the government.
Forest officer Mawla mentioned that there is a case filed with a forest court against Kashem’s son Md Sekandar Hossen for killing hundreds of trees of the forest by spraying poison on them in 2012. They wanted the land to be barren so they could lease it, he added.
The damage estimated by the forest department was worth Tk 17.21 lakh.
Sekandar could not be reached for comment.
Contacted again on Sunday, Kashem said the forest department was a fraud and it made up the allegation of spraying poison in the forest.
The Daily Star has learnt that the company was fined Tk 6 lakh by the environment department earlier this month for starting construction of the ship-breaking yard without its clearance.
Asked about it, Kashem said he was not aware that environment clearance was mandatory to begin the work.
This newspaper also found that some conditions on which the lease was granted were violated by BBC Steel.
Condition 17 and 22 state that the lease recipient will not create any obstacles to the movement of common people. During a visit to the spot, it was seen that BBC Steel installed a 300-feet-long fence along the forest, restricting the movement of the local fishing community.
On April 3, dozens of armed men were seen patrolling the leased forest to make sure no one could enter it. They were also questioning people coming close to the land and even barred some forest officials from entering the forest.
ADC Delwar said they would scrap the lease if BBC Steel breaks any of their conditions.