Illegal silica sand lifting at various quarries in Moulvibazar continues unabated while the Bureau of Mineral Development is yet to conduct an environmental impact assessment of the extraction zones despite a High Court order two years ago.
On July 3, 2018, an HC bench ordered the BMD to conduct an EIA of the silica sand quarries.
It also declared illegal the extraction of silica sand from 51 identified quarries in the district's six upazilas -- including 19 already leased out by the BMD -- without an environment clearance certificate (ECC).
Silica sand, or industrial sand, is high in demand for use in making glass and in construction in general.
The court also said the lease of the quarries can "only be granted after obtaining environmental clearance certificate on environmental impact assessment".
The court rulings came following a writ petition filed by the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (Bela) in 2018.
Syeda Rizwana Hasan, who represented Bela, said in her submission that unregulated, indiscriminate, and hazardous extraction of sand from the leased-out silica sand quarries and other areas in the six upazilas violated various laws, rules, and government policies.
She also submitted that the use of drills, dredging or mechanised machines -- a violation of lease agreements -- is damaging the environment as well as private and public properties including roads, bridges, agricultural land, and homesteads.
The petitioner also said it would be "whimsical" and an aberration of the law to allow silica sand extraction in the absence of an EIA.
She also pointed out that silica sand is essentially a mineral resource and thus falls under the "red" category of industries like other mineral resources and so, an EIA is required for a mandatory ECC.
For the past two years, however, the Bureau has failed to conduct an EIA and instead, it has been at loggerheads with the Department of Environment (DoE) over it.
It has sent a number of letters to the DoE to conduct the EIA, which the latter declined to comply with, terming it not their responsibility, according to various sources with knowledge of the matter.
The director general of BMD sent a letter to his DoE counterpart on January 7, 2019 requesting an EIA of the 51 silica sand quarries in Moulvibazar.
The DoE DG responded on January 30, 2019 saying the DoE does not assess the environmental impact for any department or organisation. The DoE could only provide an ECC, he said, after getting an EIA report from the BMD.
The BMD DG then sent another letter to the DoE DG on February 14 that year, requesting them again to undertake an EIA of the 51 quarries in the district.
Taking advantage of the long delay during which official work in the quarries remains stalled, traders engaged in indiscriminate illegal extraction of the silica sand -- posing a serious threat to the environment and ecology of the north-eastern district known for its unique beauty and natural appeal, said experts and locals.
The Daily Star had earlier reported -- including in May 2019 and February this year -- on such illegal sand lifting which locals said are controlled by influentials.
During a recent visit to Jetarchhara, Shashan, Islampara and Ichhamati villages in Sreemangal upazila, this correspondent saw traders illegally lifting silica sand using dredgers and long pipelines.
Kabir Mia, a resident of Islampur village, said sand traders, with the help of local influentials, have been extracting sand from agricultural land by setting up excavator machines and dredgers.
Kabir said the traders were extracting silica sand from a depth of 30 to 40 feet, leaving nearby agricultural and hilly land and canals vulnerable.
Joly Paul, convener of Lawachhara Bon O Jibaboichitra Rokkha Andolon, told this correspondent the illegal sand trade, worth crores of taka, is going on unabated in Sreemangal.
As a result, natural reservoirs, small rivers, hilly streams, protected areas, tea gardens, croplands, roads, river terminals, bridges, and culverts, are all in jeopardy, she added.
Sreemangal Upazila Nirbahi Officer Nazrul Islam admitted that illegal sand lifting continued despite strict vigilance. He said his office fined illegal sand lifters Tk 78.5 lakh in 21 months till July -- the period he has been in office.
Badrul Huda, assistant director of DoE in Moulvibazar, confirmed to this correspondent recently that letters were exchanged between the DoE and the Bureau on the matter of the EIA.
"Recently, we issued a letter to the BMD for submitting the application for an ECC with EIA in accordance with the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Rules, 1997. If they [BMD] submit applications, we will be able to proceed to comply with the High Court judgment," he said.
Contacted, Mamunur Rashid, deputy director of BMD, said, "We do not have funds to conduct an EIA. It is up to the environment department to assess the environmental impact. It's something they haven't done yet and that is why the process is being delayed."
Sharif Jamil, general secretary of the Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon's central committee, termed the whole episode a cruel irony.
"Whenever there is a step taken to protect our natural resources, a new way of misappropriation emerges to damage the environment more than before."
Jamil said government bodies were supposed to follow up on a good decision swiftly and in a transparent way.
"But they are delaying it only to promote rampant illegal sand lifting. And it is only profiting some corrupt government officials and influential politicians for the last couple of years," said Jamil, adding that the Anti-Corruption Commission should conduct an inquiry into the matter.