Illegal mining in India wrecks absolute ecological destruction in Bangladeshi villages downstream
Shaheed Siraj Lake, popularly known as Niladri Lake, has emerged as a popular tourist destination in the recent years. The lake known for its scenic hilly surroundings and blue water is also associated with the memory of the Liberation War.
But right now, the view is all grey. As far as the eye can see, there is nothing but sand on the banks.
The lake is on the west side of the Chandpur village in the Tahirpur Upazila of Sunamganj. Every corner of the village is filled with sand. Crop fields, houses, and even Pochashulbill, a large wetland area, have disappeared under sand.
Chandpur Government Primary School’s ground floor and the playground in front has disappeared under sand. The school had to abandon the main building and move to an adjacent tin-shed house. The playground of Chandpur High School is also covered in sand. From the west bank of Zadukata River to Tekerghat point, the road is covered in sand.
A large canal that once supplied water to the Pochashulbill has completely disappeared, with only an abandoned bridge attesting to its presence.
According to the Sunamganj Department of Agricultural Extension, 350 acres of land on the border of Tahirpur has been rendered inarable by sand. Other sources say the sand covers almost 500 hectares. All the freshwater fish and other animals in the area, including snakes, are dead or gone.
Dr Md Abul Kashem, dean of agriculture at the Sylhet Agricultural University, said every year around 80 million tons of sand comes down to the area from upland, which is in the bordering state of Meghalaya in India.
Most of it comes to the Sunamganj and Sylhet borders through rivers and waterfalls.
Tahirpur Agriculture Officer Abdus Salam said that the sand and stone fragments are flowing down from the Meghalaya. The flow of sand increases in the rainy season.
“The biggest volume comes through Lakma Point. In three villages, 350 hectares of land are covered with sand,” he said.
Around 800 families in these three villages have been affected, many from the ethnic Khasia and Garo communities. The sand has filled up about 50 hectares of another wetland, the Pochasol Haor, on the south side of these villages.
Sirajul Islam, executive engineer of the Sylhet Water Development Board, said: “This massive influx of soil is due to landslides and trees getting uprooted upstream.”
Sulai Sangma of Chandpur had been living in the area for 54 years, working as a farmer. He is now a manual worker.
“Around 57 families from ethnic communities lived in the Chandpur and Rajai villages. Of them, 14 have moved to different parts of Sylhet and eight to Mymensingh,” Sulai said.
Andrew Solomon, 55, a resident of Rajinilain village, said he had lost 30 acres of farmland to sand and gravel from the Meghalaya.
“The entire ecology of the region has changed. There are no crabs, no fish, and even snakes are moving away. No animal can live here. In the winter, the entire area becomes dry. In the rainy season, some canals become terrible,” he said.
Abul Kashem, chairman of the Uttar Barua Union Parishad, said that about 700-800 families were affected due to the intrusion of sand.
“There are about 1,200 families living in these three villages, about 100 of them ethnic minority families, and half of them have suffered losses,” he said.
“The sand and gravel flood to Tahirpur through the canals Nayachara, Burunga, Pagla Ghat, Rajani Line, Puranghat and Rajai.
“Even the water we get is reddish. This water cannot be used for anything. If you bathe with it you get rashes,” Kashem added.
‘Two countries have to work together’
Various programs have been taken with an intention of solving the sand problem. Government intervention has been sought to sort out the issue by sending a letter to different levels of the government. But, it is a matter of sorrow that this is increasing day by day, let alone sorting it out.
Kashmir Reza, a prominent Haor researcher, and president of the Environment and Haor Development Organization said local people are very concerned with the aggression of sand. To stop this, the government of both the countries will have to take effective measures, he said.
Advocate Shah Shahida Akhter, Coordinator of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) Sylhet chapter, said: “This is a bilateral problem. It can only be sorted through discussions between the two countries.”
Ministry of Environment and Forests requested the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on November 24, 2008 to take diplomatic measures to protect the agricultural land. Subsequently, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a letter to the Indian High Commission in Dhaka in 2009. Nevertheless, no further progress has been noticed.
At a meeting held between Sunamganj 17 Rifles Battalion and Shillong 83 BSF Battalion of India in the Meghalaya hills in November 2008 Bangladesh submitted a memorandum that called for stopping the unplanned extraction of stones in the hills.
Asked about the crisis, General Secretary of the Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon (BAPA) Abdul Matin said: “Such cross-border environmental issues exist in many countries of the world.
“But we have not noticed any effective initiative to overcome the problems of the sand pollution and disaster coming from India.” he added.
“Nevertheless, the life and livelihood of the people of Tahirpur of Sunamganj are in jeopardy due to the sand, along with an issue of environmental disasters. Therefore, it is crucial to take sincere and pragmatic initiatives from the highest levels of the two countries,” Matin said.