Illegal stone extraction continues unchecked in Sylhet not only at the cost of human lives, but also environment.
According to media reports, more than 50 workers were killed at illegal stone pits in the district from 2017 to now.
Bholaganj, Shah Arefin Tila, Kalairag, Lilaibazar and Utmachaara areas of Companiganj upazila; Bichnakandi and Sreepur areas of Gowainghat upazila and Lobhachhara river belt of Kanaighat upazila are some of the key sites where this illegal practice continues.
Not even Jaflong, once a popular tourist destination with river, hills and hillocks, and an ecologically critical area, is spared.
Some unscrupulous businessmen, allegedly in collusion with the local administration and ruling party men, are extracting stones in these areas using machines such as excavators, in complete violation of the High Court verdict and relevant laws, said locals and activists.
As the administration along with police, BGB and Department of Environment (DoE) is conducting drives at the sites, traders are now carrying out their activities mostly at night.
They are not even sparing the rivers -- Piyain, Gowain, Dhalai and Lobhachhara, said activists.
Power pumps rumbling on the sandbars in the rivers, hundreds of people busy around wells dug with excavators, trucks waiting on the banks, boats anchored at a distance for extracting stones from the riverbed and transporting those -- such has become the situation there.
Besides, cases filed over stone extraction have seen little to no progress as many ruling party men are involved, activists alleged.
According to DoE, five cases are progressing in Sylhet court, filed over extracting stone illegally in Shah Arefin Tila area. Another one is waiting to be recorded.
There are also some other cases filed over the illegal practice in Companiganj and Gowainghat upazilas.
On February 14, DoE submitted charge sheet to a Sylhet court in a case filed against Shamim Ahmed, president of Paschim Islampur union unit of Awami League, and 21 others over extracting stones in an illegal operation at Shah Arefin Tila in Companiganj. DoE filed the case on November 7, 2017 after death of six workers.
Shamim is contesting the upcoming upazila election as an independent candidate after not getting nomination from Awami League.
He is son of Companiganj upazila Chairman Abdul Bashir and brother of Zila Parishad member Joynal Abedin.
Abdul Karim Kim, general secretary of Bapa, Sylhet, alleged, “Many ruling party men are behind illegal stone extraction.”
“The High Court in a recent verdict said river encroachers cannot run in any elections, in an effort to save rivers from greedy grabbers. But it's a matter of shame that some of these men in Sylhet are contesting the upazila polls,” Kim said.
In Sylhet, the ruling party nominated Jaintiapur upazila AL's general secretary Liaquat Ali for the upazila polls. Liaquat is allegedly involved in extracting stones illegally in Gowainghat and Jaintiapur upazilas.
When asked, Liaquat denied the allegations.
Advocate Shah Shaheda Akhter, regional coordinator of Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association (Bela) in Sylhet, said, “DoE filed some cases in the last couple of years to avoid criticism, but the cases are in primary stage.”
Over the years, Bela filed several writ petitions with the HC to stop illegal stone extractions, and HC also issued rules in this regard, she added.
Though there are laws in place, they are not being implemented, she added. “The administration conducts small scale drives only when there are some HC orders. If they want, they can stop illegal stone extraction right away.”
Contacted, Altaf Hossain, acting director of DoE, Sylhet, said, “Due to repeated drives, stone extraction has reduced significantly, but many traders are continuing their operation at night.”
“It has become a security issue as we feel unsafe to conduct drives at night in those remote areas,” he said.
Kazi Emdadul Haque, deputy commissioner of Sylhet, said, “We are trying our level best to stop illegal stone extraction. But to stop the menace permanently, social and political awareness is a must.”