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Illegal stone dredging: Corruption threatens Panchagarh's ecology

  • Published at 05:43 pm February 3rd, 2020
Three men work as dredgers pump out stones at a quarry, operating illegally, in Panchagarh Dhaka Tribune

The practice is increasing the risk of landslides and severe damage from heavy rain and strong earthquakes, while exponentially reducing arable land mass and its fertility

The excessive use of drill and dredging machines to excavate stones illegally in the northern district of Panchagarh is starting to become a credible threat to the region’s ecological balance.

The practice is increasing the risk of landslides and severe damage from heavy rain and strong earthquakes, while exponentially reducing arable land mass and its fertility.

Despite intervention of the High Court, special taskforces, police, Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB), mobile courts, and multiple campaigns by labourers and civil society, the use of such machines have continued for almost 20 years now.

A High Court ruling has barred the use of these machines to excavate stones in Panchagarh, but reality suggests otherwise. Over 300 drill-dredgers, or as locals call them “Boma machines,” are still being used to lift hundreds and thousands of tons of stones from rivers, government-owned land and leased land in areas including Tetulia, Panchagarh Sadar, Debiganj, Dahuk, Korotoa, Bhersa, Chaowai, and Talma.

On September 1, 2009, a quarry worker died during a clash between drill-dredger owners and workers. His death had stopped use of such machines briefly, but the owners went about their way after the dust settled. 

Last month, another worker was killed and at least 30 others injured in a clash between quarry workers and law enforcement agencies, when the former were demonstrating demanding withdrawal of a ban — imposed by Panchagarh’s new Superintendent of Police (SP) Md Yusuf Ali five months ago — on stone lifting from quarries in Tetulia.

The machines are capable of excavating from 100-200m beneath the ground; creating large vacuums in land mass, reducing fertility and also changing the course of certain rivers.

The opportunity of making large sums of profit with minimal investment is attracting a lot of investors from all professions.

A 35-40 horsepower machine can excavate 17 trolleys (1 trolley accommodates 1,500-1,700 cft) of stones in 10 hours, which has a market value of over Tk1 lakh. The machine requires only five labourers and about 30 litres of diesel — costing roughly Tk10,000-15,000 only.

Investigation has revealed that a large portion of the money earned from stone excavations, worth some Tk18-20 lakh, directly goes to the hands of the police. The rest goes to local political leaders, SP, the deputy commissioner’s (DC) driver, and officials of the local administrations involved in the trade.

Requesting anonymity, a dredger machine owner told Dhaka Tribune: “A number of corrupt police officials and local influential figures are directly linked to this business.

“Among others, some BGB members, political leaders, sand traders-transport owners associations and a few local journalists are also involved in the scheme.”

Those involved

Allegations have been raised that Panchagarh 1 MP Mazharul Haque Prodhan and his followers, Tetulia upazila Chairman Kazi Mahamudur Rahman Dablu, former Panchagarh SP Giasuddin Ahmed and former Tetulia police OC Saresh Chandra used to and still protect those involved in the business.

Others include Tetulia police SIs Ashwin Roy, Shawkat and Monmohan Barman, Constables Shahidur Rahman, Ashrafuddoula, Sajedur Rahman, Mizanur Rahman and Sadekur Rahman, the police station’s driver Mizan, the DC’s driver, along with other police high-ups in the region.

Generally, it is illegal to conduct activity that poses a threat to the environment within two kilometres of any international border, but the local BGB deployment has never actively tried stopping said activities. Linemen Dhipa and Abu, two alleged BGB informers, have been reportedly extorting money on behalf of the paramilitary force’s officers.

A few sand traders-transport associations are also allegedly explicitly linked to such excavation. Panchagarh district council member Alamgir Hossain, president of stone-sand trader owners and labour welfare association Mojibur Rahman Master and his son, and general secretary Harun-ur-Rashid Liton, and Bhojonpur union parishad Chairman Mokhsed Ali’s relatives are all owners of drill-dredgers, among others.

Many others, including some local leaders of ruling Awami League, are also part of the business, both explicitly and implicitly.

Some dredger owners, asking not be named, said: “The middlemen need to be paid about Tk8,000-10,000 every day to manage police, public representatives, political leaders, private and public officials, journalists and so on.

“Every day, they collect the money from over 300-400 owners, pay the patrons, and keep the rest of the amount, which is crores of taka.”

Environmental and personal damage

The district’s Agriculture Extension Department Deputy Director Md Abu Hanif told Dhaka Tribune: “When a piece of land is used to excavate stone, it takes about 10-12 years for the land to become arable again.”

Since 2004, excavation has taken place in about 5,000 hectares of land that later turned barren. According to Hanif, Panchagarh experiences a loss of 5,000 tons of crops every year.

Sajjad Hossain, a geography department lecturer at Panchagarh’s Moynadighi Degree College, said such unregulated excavation may result in disastrous landslides during heavy rain.

He also added that the underground vacuums crated by excavations would collapse and cause widespread damage across Tetulia in the event of a strong or major earthquake.

Abdul Aziz, of Tetulia’s Sukani, is one of several tea garden owners who have also suffered because of excessive stone excavation.

Aziz said: “Dredger owners have excavated stones from as far as 80-100 feet beneath the ground, which has caused gaping holes in my tea garden. Whenever we protest, they threaten us. This garden is my only asset and if this continues, it will be destroyed.”

Not all of the accused have faced action, despite locals’ written complaints to the DC, SP, local MP, the UNO, Rangpur divisional commissioner, and even the police’s Rangpur Range deputy inspector general.

Cases filed, but to no avail

Drives have been conducted many times by the district administration, upazila administration, BGB and police after facing much pressure. Some of them were successful where machines were seized and cases filed. That had resulted stopped the illegal excavation of stones, but only temporarily.

There are cases, including ones on murder charge, against many of the culprits involved in this illegal business. But no real action has been taken against them for years.

Former upazila nirbahi officer Saniul Ferdous had sent reports to different branches of the government to take action against these people. But they are seemingly being protected, as they manage to secure bail despite being accused in multiple cases.

He told Dhaka Tribune: “It is true that stone-sand traders’ association leader Hasibul Haque Prodhan has submitted a list of dredger owners, but the list does not include the bigger fishes. Instead, it has names of only smaller traders who are insignificant.”

Saniul, who is currently the additional DC of Dinajpur, also said, during his tenure, he led multiple raids to stop the use of dredgers in Tetulia. “Machines were seized or destroyed and cases were lodged, but the accused always got out on bail and resumed their illegal activities. Now they stay prepared for raids always.”

When asked about the cases, Panchagarh District Court’s Public Prosecutor Advocate Aminul Islam failed to comment.

None of the accused or alleged culprits was also available for comment despite multiple attempts.

The allegations of widespread corruption in the district had prompted the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to conduct an investigation. But the anti-graft body is yet to take any action.

Officials offer hope

Panchagarh SP Yusuf told Dhaka Tribune that the current situation was under their control.

“Whatever happens, we won’t let illegal stone lifting to resume. We won’t waver whatever obstructions we face. Banned dredgers machines will not return,” he pledged to the locals.

Panchagarh DC Sabina Yasmin only said that they have been conducting raids in regular intervals. “Last year, we were able to seize or destroy 169 machines, 24 drums and 20,000 75-feet-long ring pipes.”

Current Tetulia police OC Jahurul Islam said: “I don’t know what happened in the past, but no dredger machines are currently being used in this region. We are vigilant about this.”

Panchagarh district council Chairman Anwar Sadat Samrat, also the general secretary of Awami League’s district unit, said: “It is good that these machines are not being used. We appreciate the efforts of the new SP. We don’t want anything that destroys the environment.”

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