Friday's landslide, killing five of a family at Chittagong's Jongol Salimpur, was the harrowing reminder of a recurring disaster that the residents of the remote area are far too familiar with.
But frequent landslides and loss of lives in the remote hills of Sitakunda are not enough to deter the landless and low-income families who prefer to settle in the risky area simply because it is cheap.
The further a hill is from human settlement, the lower its possession price. Locals say the prices also vary depending on the extent of landslide risk – the closer the hills, the less the costs.
For example, a small plot in the plain land that costs between Tk1 lakh to Tk5 lakh will cost Tk 60,000 if it is located far from human settlement. A plot of the same size would cost about Tk40,000 or less if it is close to the hills.
People who settle there enter into verbal agreements with politically-connected people who illegally take possession of government land and “sell” them to others looking for cheap accommodation.
In the beginning, members of a cooperative society of landless people could take possession of the land at a nominal price. Buying and selling of plots in the hills grew massively after 2004.
“The cost depends on the location,” said Abdur Rahim, a resident of Jongol Salimpur.
Md Ferdous, an owner of a plot there, said he had bought a piece of land for Tk1.30 lakh in 2013 and now he was looking to sell it for Tk5 lakh.
An impenetrable empire of land occupiers
During the 1990s, the remote hills of Jongol Salimpur were inaccessible due to dense forests. That started changing in 2004 when a man, Ali Akkas, backed by the then ruling BNP politicians, started illegally occupying the government hills.
The authorities concerned turned a blind eye to Akkas' deeds, who even restricted entry of ordinary people into his “empire” by erecting a number of iron gates, guarded round the clock by armed security guards.
Akkas turned the hills of Jongol Salimpur into a veritably impregnable empire and led to the mindless denuding of the hills over the years.
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A firefighter seen climbing up the mountain hit by landslide on July 21, 2017 Rabin Chowdhury/Dhaka Tribune
Akkas' death in an alleged gunfight with RAB in 2010 slowed the illegal land occupation for a while but the pace picked up after a few years when people backed by the ruling party stepped forward.
Land grabbers formed the ‘Chittagong City Rootless Slum Dwellers Coordination Struggle Association’ in collusion with ruling party leaders to secure dominance over the several hundred acres of hills.
Currently more than 20,000 people live in the area.
Also Read- Five of a family killed in Chittagong landslide
Leaders of the association have divided the area into units called ‘samaj’, a Bengali word meaning society. Friday's deadly landslide hit an area under ‘samaj no-3’.
The area is filled with houses constructed at the pockets, peaks, ravines, flanks and slopes by cutting, levelling and razing hills.
Residents have managed to secure illegal power connections with the help of some dishonest officials of Bangladesh Power Development Board. Almost every household has an electric metre.
Gazi Md Sadequr Rahman, president of the association, claimed that the electricity connections were not illegal as they were given electric metres.
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Man stares at his house which was damaged in the landslide on July 21, 2017 Rabin Chowdhury/Dhaka Tribune
Sitakunda upazila Vice-Chairman Md Alauddin Saberi told the Dhaka Tribune that landless people from different parts of the country settled in areas vulnerable to landslides.
He said mindless cutting of hills in full view of the authorities concerned for constructing settlement on government land had triggered these deadly mudslides.
Sadequr defended the settlement, saying, “People who have nowhere to go live in the area.
“We have constructed roads, educational institution, religious establishments without the government's support. Now the government should improve the living standard of the inhabitants.”