Any health-conscious person visiting the government-run Leprosy Hospital in Nilphamari may notice an irony that a large chunk of land belonging to the hospital is being used for growing tobacco.
The piece of land, where tobacco is being grown, is right around the corner of the 20-bed hospital compound located in Notkhana village of Nilphamari Sadar upazila.
When medical science and physicians at home and abroad alike are advising all to refrain from smoking and consuming tobacco products, the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) seems to remain oblivious to the fact that the harmful crop is being grown on the very land of a hospital that the DGHS owns and operates.
During a visit to the area, it was found that nearly seven to eight bighas of land between the hospital's staff quarter and its boundary wall is being used for tobacco farming.
Locals wishing to remain unnamed alleged that two individuals named Ekramul Islam Kamrul and Tahauddin, both related to an influential leader of Awami League's Palashbari union unit, operate the farm by paying Tk eight to ten thousand per bigha of land in bribe to the civil surgeon's office in Nilphamari.
Asked by this correspondent, Ekramul said, “We've been growing tobacco and other crops on unproductive land of the health department for years, with the consent from the authorities concerned.”
Nur Islam, a farmer in the area, said, “Since farming of tobacco pollutes the environment and its consumption causes illness, we had sent written complaints to the civil surgeon's office, requesting it to take action against the tobacco farm. Years went by, but there's still no action against it.”
"Chemical fertiliser and pesticides used in the tobacco farm seep through into surrounding farmland and affect the fertility," said Faguna Barman, another farmer, who lives next to the tobacco farm.
He also said he tried protesting, but the neighbouring farm operators are too powerful to care about the others.
Asked whether Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) could play a role in stopping tobacco farming, DAE Deputy Director Abul Kashem Azad said they observe World Tobacco-free Day on May 31 every year to create awareness on the harm tobacco brings on human health as well as on the environment.
When asked why the hospital authorities are allowing the tobacco farm on its property, Dr Khorshed Alam, consultant at the hospital, said he did not have any authority over the matter and the civil surgeon's office was notified of it before for necessary action.
After this correspondent raised the issue of allowing a tobacco farm on the hospital land in exchange for money, Civil Surgeon Ranjit Kumar Barman refuted the allegation, saying, “I had no information about any tobacco cultivation on the land belonging to the Leprosy Hospital. Since I'm aware of it now, I'll take action against the unlawful farming.”