Unlawfully lifting sand from rivers and streams has become regular news. The latest report from Satkhira is the disaster wrought to the river Ichhamoti. Ichhamoti flows along the India-Bangladesh border through Debhata upazila in Satkhira. The banks of the river have been eroding in at several places in Debhata, including Char Komarpur, Bhatshala, Town Sreepur, Sushilghati, Nangla and more. Whether the administration knows or not, the people of these villages are well aware that certain influential quarters have been destroying the banks of the river, by using dredging machines to extract sand.
This season fish spawned in multitude in the river Halda, a part of world heritage. This river has a rare ebb and flow where sweet water fish lay eggs. It is a natural wonder of fish breeding grounds. But the sand grabbers are not sparing Halda either. From the very outset of the year, there have been allegations that these unscrupulous persons have been installing dredgers along the river from Nangalmora union to Madunaghat, extracting and selling sand. The river banks are disintegrating and houses are going under water.
All water streams are important. Even so, some are even more important for a number of reasons. Ichhamoti and Halda are particularly significant. If rivers which demarcate the international borders are eroded, then the borders are eroded, sovereign territory is blurred. Halda is one of our few sites of natural pride. Such important rivers should have been included in the 2010 act which prohibited the extraction of sand from certain areas.
After the unexpected floods in Dinajpur and Thakurgaon in 2017, it was thought that the authorities would pay due attention to the small, medium and big rivers of the region. But the fact remains that sand excavation is going on in full swing in the rivers there, whether it is the Chhoto Jamuna in Dinajpur’s Fulbari upazila or the river Tangon in Thakurgaon’s Pirganj. Parghata bridge and croplands in Pirganj are threatened by erosion. Powerful persons, with no lease, are extracting sand from the river Tangon along No. 11 Boirachora union of Pirganj upazila and Bochaganj in Dinajpur district.
According to the Sand Quarry and Soil Management Act 2010, underground sand or soil cannot be extracted by pumps, dredging or other means. Sand cannot be quarried within a kilometer radius of any bridge, culvert, dam, barrage, embankment, road, highway, forest, railway track or any important government or non-government structure or residential areas. Needless to say, these laws are being flouted indiscriminately. One site is being leased, but sand is being removed from ten other places. For example, permission was given for sand to be quarried from a limited area of Beltali and Gopalpur in Shibnagar union along the banks of Chhoto Jamuna. But the quarters who have taken the lease are extracting sand from the upazila’s Daulatpur, Khairbari union and various sites along the river. It is completely illegal to extract sand from places other than the sites which have been leased for the purpose. The concerned government official, the UNO, confirmed to the media that it is illegal to remove sand from sites other than the specified ones.
Journalists visiting these areas saw that not only was sand being extracted from several unauthorised sites, but dredgers were being used indiscriminately for the purpose. The embankment by the river Jamuna is at risk due to this extraction. When asked about the use of dredgers to extract sand, the sand lifters replied, “Dredgers are being used all over the country to lift sand, so why not here?”
Sand piles and sales sites have cropped all over to market the sand. According to the regulations, the sand quarry management committee under the district administration is supposed to select the site for the sand to be kept. But is that being heeded anywhere at all? In Sreemangal, a graveyard has been taken over and croplands have been covered in brick and cement for this unlawful sand storage. If anyone tries to complain, they come under threat.
The media has published several reports in this regard, but to no avail. A visit by members of the media on 12 April to the village Paschim Saitola or Sindurkhan union, Sreemangal, revealed that sand is being extracted from several places along the river Putiachhara. Cropland is being destroyed and a nearby river is threatened. Cement, stones and other paraphernalia are being dumped on the crop fields of the villages. The owners of the croplands are facing big losses.
The fact that the Sand Quarry and Soil Management Act 2010 is being totally ignored indicates that the sand looters are extremely influential and organised. Just as a river needs water to flow into the sea, it also needs sand for its physical structure and balance. Just as a river dies if its water is removed, it cannot survive if its sand is removed. Sand is not unlimited. Sand no longer comes down the rivers Jamuna and Brahmaputra as before. Then there is the deterioration of law and order in several places of the country due to the power tussle over the sand quarries. Compromises in the law simply give these powerful quarters more chance to flex their muscles.
* Gowher Nayeem Wahra is relief and disaster management activist and teacher at Dhaka University. This piece has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir