The scenic and “protected” Jaflong area of Sylhet has almost been ruined as stone lifters are using over 100 illegal excavators that quarry stones with deafening noise.
According to a gazette notification issued in 2015, around 15sqkm area, from the Jaflong-Dawki river flowing into Bangladesh at the border with India to the edge of Sari-Gowainghat river, is Ecologically Critical Area (ECA).
Any kind of stone extraction or economic activity that could affect the area's environment was restricted.
A 2012 High Court order that asked the government to issue the gazette also asked to stop the use of such excavators, locally known as “boma machines”, and other earthmoving equipment in the area.
The court had directed the government to remove all such machines to protect Jaflong's eco-system, biodiversity, and the livelihoods of people living along the rivers.
General Secretary Abdul Karim Kim of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon, Sylhet chapter, said the ECA also covers the entire Khasipunji area up to the Pyain river, including 500 metres on both sides of the river.
“But the stone extraction, crushing, and dumping are going on unabated,” he said.
During a visit, The Daily Star correspondent saw that the picturesque hills of the area were being systematically devoured by excavators for stone extraction on a large scale. The noise made by the machines could be heard from a long distance away.
The indiscriminate stone lifting was hurting the adjacent Jafflong Tea Company Ltd. Authorities of the estate have requested the local administration to take necessary steps to protect their estate from the destructive activities, said sources in the company.
Chief Executive Abdul Hye Al-Hadi of Save the Heritage and Environment said more than 100 such stone extracting machines were being used by the so-called stone traders, allegedly in collusion with the local administration, ruling party men, and even journalists.
Amid the indifference of the authorities concerned, stone lifters recently set up some crushers on the riverside hills of Noya Bosti and Kando Bosti, all inside the ECA.
Stones collected by the “boma machines” are being crushed there and then sent to different parts of the country for use in construction.
Villagers of Noya Bosti and Kando Bosti, tired of the noise and seeing the destruction of their neighbourhoods before their eyes, submitted a petition to the Sylhet deputy commissioner on August 31 asking for steps.
“But we are helpless,” said Fokrul Islam, a signatory of the petition. “There is no sign of improvement of the situation although we have appealed repeatedly to the authorities concerned.”
According to the villagers, the stone lifters had the blessings of influential people and ruling party leaders. Consequently, goons were threatening the locals for lodging complaints against the stone lifters.
Local UP member Ataur Rahman Atai claimed that he was put behind bars under a false case because he protested the illegal stone extraction.
Asked about the villagers' petition, Deputy Commissioner Rahat Anwar of Sylhet said the authorities were aware of the illegal activity. “Sometimes we conduct drives against the boma machines. We call upon the locals to come forward and help the administration in preventing such illegal acts,” he said.
Sylhet Coordinator of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (Bela) Shaheda Begam told The Daily Star that years had gone by since the High Court directive and the gazette notification but the ECA had not been implemented properly.
Gowainghat upazila AL unit President Mohammad Ibrahim said there was no denying that illegal stone extraction was going on in Jaflong. The party condemns such activities, he said, adding that local ruling party activists in Jaflong could be involved in such acts and that he would take punitive actions if specific allegations were brought against a party man.