A farmer in Rajshahi's Paba upazila, Motahar Hossain sees his land waterlogged most part of the year -- preventing him from cultivating paddy with water even encroaching into his home.
This, however, is not a result of climate change or seasonal flooding.
In Rajshahi division, low agricultural land -- including vast stretches of beels -- is being converted into fields of ponds for fish cultivation.
Experts said the high banks of these ponds block natural water flow, leading to severe waterlogging in nearby areas during the rainy season and beyond, affecting crop fields -- mostly three-crop yielding ones -- and delaying paddy cultivation.
"Arbitrarily dug without prior assessment of requirements and environmental aspects, these ponds have put lives and livelihoods at stake," Prof ABM Mohsin of fisheries at Rajshahi University told The Daily Star.
Farmer Motahar said the waterlogging has deprived him of both rice and straw for cattle as he cannot cultivate paddy. "We don't need these ponds. These are the roots of our destruction."
The local administration has turned a blind eye as there is no law against pond digging and influentials in the region -- including some politicians -- have investments in these ponds, activists and farmers alleged.
Md Ayeen Uddin, lawmaker from Rajshahi-3 constituency (Paba-Mohonpur), admitted to this correspondent that he had been running at least three ponds on 150 bighas of leased land for the last five years.
During a visit to these areas five years ago, this correspondent first observed ponds being dug on crop fields, which villagers said were leased by the local lawmaker.
The MP, in February, claimed that his ponds were not affecting anyone.
However, several locals in Paba, requesting not to be named, recently told this newspaper that the lawmaker's ponds cause waterlogging on their cropland and homesteads every year.
"We hear about an understanding between the local administration and investors in ponds," said SM Mizanur Rahman, member secretary of the Chalan Beel Protection Movement in Sirajganj.
Though affected villagers staged protests from time to time, the local administration kept silent in the end and influentials continued to dig ponds, he said.
Ponds have scarred Chalan Beel, which is divided into around small 100 beels, by converting previously three-crop offering land to lone-crop one, he added.
Contacted on April 12, Rajshahi Divisional Commissioner Dr Md Humyun Kabir said, "There is no specific law against pond digging."
He, however, agreed that causing waterlogging on someone else's land or blocking natural water flow is an offence.
"We are conducting drives but the practice is so widespread that it has become difficult to check when the ponds are being dug overnight," he added.
The divisional administrative boss added that they wrote to the land ministry for issuing an executive order against the practice. The ministry is likely to respond soon.
Conversion of land types are prohibited by land and environment protection laws and in addition, the Bangladesh Water Act of 2013 strictly prohibits hindering natural water flow, said Tanmay Sanyal, Rajshahi regional coordinator of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers' Association (Bela).
The draft of the Agricultural Land Protection and Land Use Act which prohibits the conversion of agricultural land in clearer terms is yet to be finalised, he added.
PONDS TAKING OVER
On visits to Natore and Rajshahi from December till last month, this correspondent saw tractors busily breaking the silence of the otherwise tranquil rural roads, carrying earth from the newly dug ponds to brick kilns.
In mid-February, farmers in Natore's Boraigram and Rajshahi's Paba, Mohonpur and Tanore upazilas were seen planting Boro seedlings when the sowing season was nearing its end. They said it should have been done earlier but they had to wait for water to recede after their land was waterlogged because of the unplanned ponds.
The trend of digging ponds began in Chalan Beel areas in Natore district in the early 2000s. It spread to other districts in the last ten years, according to data from the Department of Fisheries.
At least 17 upazilas in five districts -- Rajshahi, Natore, Bogura, Pabna, and Sirajganj -- witnessed the greatest increase in the number of ponds dug for lucrative fish cultivation.
In Rajshahi division, the Department of Fisheries recorded an increase of 24,651 hectares of pond areas since 2001-02.
Its data also showed around 12,000 new ponds were dug in the nine years till 2018-19.
Fisheries and agriculture officials, however, said the official data does not reflect the actual picture as ponds elsewhere have also been filled up and river chars brought under crop cultivation. Besides, no proper survey has been conducted in recent times.
They roughly estimated the number of new ponds in the five districts to be more than 36,000 in the last 20 years.
New ponds are necessary for fulfilling the growing demand for fish, said Md Tofazuddin Ahamed, divisional deputy director at Department of Fisheries.
"But that doesn't mean we have to turn three-crop yielding land into ponds. We discourage it," he said.
CROP FIELDS CONVERTED
"Unplanned digging of ponds is affecting agriculture," said Md Sirajul Islam, additional director of the Department of Agricultural Extension Rajshahi regional office.
This is echoed by local farmers who The Daily Star spoke to in these areas.
Nawshad Ali, of Beel Nepalpara, is one of the farmers planting Boro paddy late as his land remained waterlogged for longer than normal.
He said farmers lease out their cropland for ponds when they suffer losses in their yearly crops. Pond diggers offer them around Tk 20,000-Tk 30,000 per bigha a year.
In the initial years, the farmers were offered more than Tk 50,000 for a bigha.
"The lease money comes easily whereas farming paddy involves investment and labour and no guarantee of profit," he said.
Nawshad leased out one bigha, of his three bighas in the beel, for a pond to be dug three years ago.
"That one bigha in the pond fetches me annual lease money, which is half the price of what I used to get cultivating paddy on three bighas," he said.
Farmer Rohidul Islam said, "The recent increase in paddy prices have made us enthusiastic, but we have no cropland left. Some crop fields were converted and other fields remain waterlogged for the whole period of Aman paddy and mustard cultivation."
He alleged that pond diggers are "tricking" villagers by digging ponds at the lower corners of beels, causing waterlogging on adjacent land and then forcing the owners of the waterlogged land to lease it out for ponds.
"When farmers see their land becomes one or no-crop yielding from three-crop, they find no way out but to lease it to pond diggers," Rohidul said.
Local farmers said Boro Beel, Nepalpara, Faliar, Anulia, Piarpur, Dhuroil, Kantar, Ratoal, Pompara, and Fariar in Rajshahi's Paba, Mohonpur and Durgapur upazilas, as well as Chakoler Beel, Beel Dhahar, and Chinidanga Beel barely have any farmland left.
Most fields in seven mouzas -- Moharajpur, Achariya Chapila, Gozendra Chapila, Paikpara, Chapila, Bripathuria, and Sadhupara -- out of 27 mouzas of Natore's Gurudaspur have been turned into ponds.
A local of Moharajpur in Gurudaspur upazila said he and many others have to move to their relatives' houses in higher areas or to the city during the monsoon as their homes get filled with water.
"Those who don't have anywhere to go, make a macha [an elevated bamboo platform] to take shelter," he said.
During a visit to Harian union in Paba upazila on April 12, this correspondent saw one pond was already dug while four excavators were digging another in the Nolkhola-Digori beel.
Locals said the land where the pond was dug has been laying fallow for five years because of ensuing waterlogging while the land where the new pond is being dug yielded paddy and other crops till a month ago.
They added hundreds of ponds have dotted the beel stretching four kilometres to Parila from Nolkhola.
Although ponds have become a major cause of woe for farmers, the upside is that these have been hugely profitable for fish farmers as demand for fish remains high and rising.
Fish farming on a pond of ten bighas can fetch a tidy profit of at least Tk 5 lakh against a Tk 10 lakh investment on land lease and fish cultivation, Amjad Hossain, a fish farmer in Mohonpur.
But Md Belal Hossain, a fish trader, expressed his anxiety that these new ponds will bring fish prices down.
He said the number of ponds being dug this year is higher than that in previous years. "Pond diggers are taking the opportunity of coronavirus outbreak when the administration is very busy and has other priorities."
LOSS OF LIVELIHOOD
Mainul Islam and his three brothers used to earn from three crops a year cultivated on their four-bigha land in Paschim Beel in Paba upazila.
Their land has been yielding only one crop, Boro paddy, since ponds were dug around it three years ago.
The family's financial situation has accordingly deteriorated.
"We have to move to towns looking for jobs to survive the crop-less period," he said.
Farm labourers are losing their livelihood with crop fields decreasing as ponds don't need as many labourers.
The entire process of producing crops on a bigha of land, he said, requires around 30 labourers. But two caretakers are sufficient for a pond, be it on 10 or 50 bighas of land, according to local farmers.
The number of jobless farm labourers is increasing, and jobs in towns have become scarce too, said Habibur Rahman of Parila village in Paba upazila.
Habibur is one of hundreds of farm labourers who brave cold, rains, and summer heat travelling to Rajshahi city seven days a week for work.
This correspondent met him at the Qamaruzzaman square in the city one morning recently.
"I didn't find any job today. Usually, I get a job twice or thrice a week. Sometimes, I go through two weeks without a job," he said.
"My family and I have to endure half-fed days in those weeks."