3 govt bodies issue desist notices
Three government authorities have asked the managing director of a private business conglomerate Unique Group to halt earth-filling of fertile agricultural lands in the name of a private Sonargaon Economic Zone on the river Meghna in Sonargaon Upazila.
On the basis of ground inspection, a Department of Environment's (DoE) July 24 letter said that Unique Group was found filling up agricultural land, wetlands and low-lying lands with a dozen unloading dredgers for private economic zone, defying High Court and government orders time and again. They asked Unique Property Development Limited of Unique Group to stop the sand-filling immediately.
On the same date, Sonargaon Upazila Nirbahi Officer Md Shahinur Islam issued a similar order to stop the sand-filling of farmland and asked the managing director to comply with the High Court ban. In a July 31 report to Narayanganj deputy commissioner, he said they carried out a mobile court drive and penalised two dredger workers while earth-filling in the proposed economic zone.
Bangladesh Economic Zone Authority on July 29 also asked the group's managing director Mohammad Noor Ali to comply with the court ban.
Despite a March 2014 High Court ban, Unique Group resumed filling up of farmland with sand with over a dozen unloading dredgers positioned in the Meghna river since July 16, said Abdul Khaleq, a villager of Kandargaon.
After having filled a huge chunk of farmland with sand for nearly a month, the company removed 13 dredgers on August 13 leaving some still at the site, said villager Enayet Ullah Mollah. The last time the business group resumed earth-filling was eight months ago in early December last year, he said.
Meanwhile, the Appellate Division full bench of the Supreme Court on August 14 ordered Noor Ali, as managing director of both Sonargaon Economic Zone and Sonargaon Resort City, to refrain from filling up farmlands, wetlands and part river Meghna. The apex court also ordered the deputy commissioner of Narayanganj to halt the earth-filling and remove whatever has been dumped, in keeping with the previous court order and an October 2016 letter of the deputy commissioner himself.
This time the loss of livelihood of nearly 12,000 villagers on the river Meghna in Sonargaon looks definitive with destruction of their ancestral agricultural land in spite of the country's highest court's ban, residents said.
“They have dumped sand on those lands where we would cultivate winter crops in this October and paddy in December,” said Khaleq.
“By now, we have lost our ancestral livelihood of paddy cultivation and be displaced from our homestead too,” said Md Noor Uddin, a villager of Char Bhabanathpur, “We have lost 3 of 3.60 acres of our paternal farmlands to the sand-filling.”
During a visit to the village on July 21, this correspondent found at least five metal pipes of the unloading dredgers relentlessly dumping sand on the farmland while half a dozen others remained laid out.
Mohammad Noor Ali, managing director of Unique Group, told The Daily Star, “We are not filling up the farmland; some local villagers are doing it to increase their land prices. We have got our required amount of land already filled up.”
He said they have purchased 360 acres farmland in the said moujas to build the economic zone and the land ministry in May last year approved Unique Group to hold the said amount of land.
Noor Ali argued that there are two other private economic zones close to the proposed site of his.
Pointed out that different government authorities have asked him to stop the earth-filling of farmland, Noor Ali said, “They mistakenly thought it was me.”
Back in 2009, Unique Group with its company Unique Property Development Ltd embarked on a massive earth-filling project in a part of river Meghna and adjoining low-lying wetlands and agricultural land in six moujas -- Jainpur, Chaihishya, Char Bhabanathpur, Bhatibanda, Pirojpur and Ratanpur -- to make way for a real estate scheme named Sonargaon Resort City.
In the face of a hefty penalty slapped by environment department in 2011 for causing colossal damage to agriculture, environment and marine ecology, the developer stopped the move only to return within a couple of years giving the company a different name -- Unique Hotel and Resorts Limited, a concern of Unique Group, to build the private economic zone.
Following a public interest litigation by Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (Bela), the HC in March 2014 banned destruction of the ecologically-sensitive agricultural lands, adjoining wetlands and ecology by the river Meghna in Jainpur, Chaihishya, Char Bhabanathpur, Bhatibanda, Pirojpur and Ratanpur moujas.
The court intended to prevent any further damage to the villagers who are largely dependent on agriculture, and ordered the developer to restore the filled-up agricultural land to their original state.
Bela Chief Executive Syeda Rizwana Hasan said violation of court injunction was habitual, and the land ministry's endorsement for holding 360 acres agricultural land by Unique Group was in contravention of agricultural land reform ordinance. It is unlawful, she said, adding that they can retain at best 60 acres.
She further said that the Meghna private economic zone is located out of the said moujas and the other, Aman private economic zone, is further away from this area.
Noor Ali's deposition to the court, environment department's penalty on him, BIWT's notice on him and all the correspondences of deputy commissioner and Upazila Nirbahi Officer in this regard all recognise the area in question as high-yield fertile agricultural land and river foreshore, said Rizwana.