Despite widespread protest and criticism from different quarters, Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority (BEZA) is still determined to establish an economic zone on hundreds of acres of arable land in Chunarughat in Habiganj.
The economic zone aims to protect greater interest of tea garden workers, BEZA Executive Chairman Paban Chowdhury told the Dhaka Tribune in an interview recently.
In partnership with the tea garden workers, BEZA will establish the economic zone, creating new job opportunities for the tea workers, said Paban.
The government has decided to build an economic zone on around 512 acres of land in Chunarughat, which was earlier leased out to Chandpur Tea Estate operated by the British company, Duncan Brothers.
The lease was recently cancelled for the establishment of the economic zone.
The land, which the tea workers use for cultivation of food grain, now belongs to Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority.
Tea workers have been protesting the decision, saying that their livelihood will be at stake once the economic zone is built.
Echoing agitating workers, civil society members, political parties, and rights activists appealed to the government to hold open talks with the tea workers as regards establishing the economic zone on the agricultural land that they use for cultivation.
However, BEZA Chairman Paban Chowdhury outright rejected any such fear.
Rather, he gave the version that the establishment of economic zone would ensure empowerment and opportunities for tea workers to come out of their life of deprivation, which they have been going through for nearly 200 years.
“Why are we always against the development activities?” questioned BEZA Chairman.
“This is a problematic mindset which needs to be changed,’’ he opined.
The land belonged to the government was earlier leased out to the tea estate for plantation of trees. So, the government has cancelled lease of the portion and has transferred around 512 acres of land to BEZA for establishment of the economic zone, said Paban.
To supporting his point, Paban said: “They are now earning Tk69 a day only when they work. If they (tea workers) don’t attend their work, they get nothing. We’ve taken up the initiative to help them coming out from leading lives of the marginalised society people.”
Responding to a query on whether BEZA made any consultation with the tea workers before finalising the plan, Paban stated that the authorities had a series of meeting with tea workers, in addition to the meetings with trade representative of British High Commission, Duncan Brothers, and local lawmakers on the proposed economic zone.
During the meetings, BEZA has assured the workers that the government will give them houses under governments Asrayan Project. Besides, they will get five decimal of land to be registered in their name so they can cultivate food grains there, he reminded.
As the workers don’t know any other work, the government would construct a skill development centre there, so that the workers can acquire skills, which will help create earning opportunities for them.
There will be schools, houses, hospitals and everything required for a quality life, so that the workers can lead a good life, he added.
Both the Cabinet Secretary and the Asrayan Project Director have also assured BEZA of extending their cooperation in this regard, said Paban.
As part of the welfare initiative, BEZA has already talked to AK Khan Group and Abdul Monem Group to employ some of the tea workers in their private economic zones and gets assurance from the groups in this connection, he added.
“We will change their quality of life. They will get their own house and have their rights on the land. Once the economic zone is built, their life will be changed,” he hoped.
Responding to a query about the ongoing protest, which the tea workers have been doing since December 11, Paban Chowdhury said: “A vested quarter is instigating them as there will be short of workers once the economic zone is built.”
“We have to overcome the obstacles. We are working to protect greater interest of the tea garden workers. We will able to convince them,” he firmly said.
Describing the advantages of establishment of the economic zone in Chunarughat, BEZA Executive Chairman said: “The area has surplus electricity and gas connections.”
“The area has the potentiality for ceramic factory, food processing, small engineering, automobile spare parts industries, pharmaceuticals industries. In addition, we have received proposals from Non-Resident Bangladeshi’s (NRB) living in England on building green house project in the area,” he said.
Once the zone is built, it will help Bangladeshi manufacturers to export their products to ‘Seven-Sister States’ of India, he said adding that the Indian businesses can also make investment in the economic zones and can re-export the products to their own country.
BEZA has already conducted the initial study and a feasibility study will be conducted soon there.
“We’re expecting that we can build a model economic zone there by next two or two and a half years, in partnership with tea garden workers,” said BEZA Executive Chairman.