Unrestrained stone quarrying going on along the course of the Piyain River has created the threat of landslide for five villages of indigenous Khasi people in Jaflong area under Goainghat upazila, Sylhet.
Stone quarries, dug as deep as 50-70 feet, have dotted the area, although the permissible depth is only five feet, the Dhaka Tribune's Sylhet Correspondent found out during a visit there recently.
The correspondent also discovered that workers of the quarries are using dredger machines, locally known as Boma machines, to mine. The use of Boma machines is also prohibited by a High Court order.
The Piyain originates from the Umghat River of Assam, India. After entering Bangladesh, it travels about 7km along the international boundary – keeping the Khasi villages of Goainghat on its right bank. The channel of the river has largely been choked with silt, creating favorable conditions for setting up the quarries.
But influential quarters have misused the opportunity and violated the conditions fixed for the excavation.
About 200 quarries have been dug surrounding five villages – Balla Punji, Sangram Punji, Nakshia Punji, Lama Punji and Protappurt – that have a population of about 3,000 Khasi people.
The locals fear the stone pits surrounding the villages can cause mudslides and destroy entire villages along the riverbank if there is heavy rainfall during the monsoon.
Their concern is well grounded if one takes into account huge mudslides in the quarries in recent times.
The local administration has recently suspended stone lifting in the quarries near Balla Punji area following the death of five people in a stone quarry landslide on January 2.
According to Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association (BELA), at least 39 quarry workers had been killed in mudslides in Sylhet district between January 23, 2017 and January 2, 2018.
This correspondent talked to a number of locals in the area, but no one wanted to reveal their identities. The quarter involved with stone quarrying are good terms with the leaders of their own community, locals added.
Reazuddin, owner of a stone quarry near Nakshia Punji, told the Dhaka Tribune that he had bought the land, paying Tk4 lakh, from a person of the local Khasi community.
He also admitted that he has to pay give about Tk10,000 to the police sources and some local Khasi people about Tk10,000 per day for quarrying the stone.
BELA's Sylhet unit General Secretary Abdul Karim Kim said: “There are influential people behind these illegal activities. That is why the administration is also unable to take a firm stand.”
Sylhet Deputy Commissioner Rahat Anwar said: “Stone lifting is allowed in traditional method. The drive of the task force against illegal stone lifting using Boma machines is continuing. Quite often during the drive, Boma machines are being destroyed.”
Goainghat Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) Bishwajit Kumar Pal noted that a ban was imposed on stone quarrying in Jaflong after a 14.93 sq-km area of it was declared as ecologically critical area (ECA) back in 2015.
“But people involved in this business filed a writ petition with the High Court. Responding to the petition, the High Court ordered to allow stone quarrying in the main channel of the Piayin River,” he said.
Asked about the violation of the depth limit for the quarries, the UNO said they are keeping an eye on the matter.