Councillor himself involved in hill-cutting

Numerous plots like this have been created by cutting down the hills in the Pahartali area of ChattogramJewel Shil

There is mention of three hills in the records of Uttar Pahartali mouza in the Akbar Shah area of Chattogram city. Local ward councillor Zahurul Alam alias Jasim and his wife Tachhlima Begum own 12 decimals of land there. And Zahurul took advantage of being the owner of that land.

Local environmentalists and locals allege that the councillor’s men are involved in cutting down all the three hills there. Zahurul is selling plots by destroying those hills. He also has a cattle farm there.

According to the environment department, only 20 per cent of the three hills on the 8.60 acres of land remain now. About one acre of the hill land is privately owned and the rest is under various government agencies.

There is another hill covering three acres of land in the Beltalighona area in the locality. Zahurul has cut down that hill and established a non-government primary school and named it in his father’s name.

Zahurul also has cut down another hill owned by the government and covered up the Kalir Chara canal to build his personal office and another cattle farm only half a kilometre away from the Betalighona area.

The Directorate of Environment has lodged three cases against Zahurul and his wife at different times on the allegations of cutting down hills in these three areas. The last of these cases was filed in August last year. However, the cutting of hills didn’t stop.

Speaking regarding this, Hillol Biswas, director of the Department of Environment, “Several cases have been filed over the previous incidents. A new committee has been formed in cooperation with the CDA and city corporation after getting the complaints of hill-cutting again. They will submit a report after a suvey.”

In this way, new plots are being created by cutting the hills every day in the Akbar Shah area of the city. Any outsider finds it difficult to enter the area. A group of youth remains constantly on guard in the area.

A team of Bangladesh Environment Lawyer Association (BELA), including their chief executive Syeda Rizwana Hasan, faced obstruction from the councillor and his men when they tried to enter the area to inspect the allegations regarding hill-cutting and filling up pools.

They behaved violently with the BELA team and hurled brickbats at Rizwana Hasan’s car. A case has been filed with the Akbar Shah police station over the incident. Councillor Zahurul Alam has been made the prime accused in the case.

The locals have filed complaints against Zahurul to the district commissioner and the Department of environment. Md Shafiqul Islam, a local resident and environmentalist, filed a complaint in writing against Zahurul on 28 December 2022.

He said in the complaint that Zahurul started cutting down the hills from 2014. Mainly his associates control the hill-cutting activities in the area. He has a group of at least 12 people. Apart from his own purposes, he and his associates also cut down hills on contract.

Local environmentalists and sources say each plot made out by cutting down hills is sold at Tk 300,000 to 1,000,000 and nearly 100 plots have been sold so far.

Asked about these allegations, Zahurul Alam said, “I don’t have any idea about who is involved in hill-cutting. Half of the people in my ward live on hills. They might have built houses by cutting down hills and introduced them as councillor’s people.”

However, he avoided the question regarding the case filed by the Department of Environment.

The Lake City residential area in the city is located beside the three hills in the Pahartali mouza. The road towards the Lake City residential area, which was constructed by cutting down a hill, directly connects with the Faujdarhat-Bayezid link road. As a result, the price of lands in the area skyrocketed as the communication facilities increased.

It has been seen that the hills have been flattened in the Lake City area. There are many other plots beside it with boundary walls. Houses have been constructed in some of these plots.

Zahurul Alam is also the joint convener of Awami League’s Pahartali ward unit. Sarwar Morshed, convener of Awami League’s Pahartali ward unit too has denied the allegations of his party members being involved in hill-cutting.

BELA filed a writ petition with the High Court against the non-stop hill-cutting in Lake City residential areas in 2015. The Department of Environment, deputy commissioner and local ward councillor were made the defendant in the writ. It was alleged in the writ that a total of 10 acres of hills in the Pahartali mouza had been cut. Later in 2020, the court issued a rule to protect the hills in that area.

BELA chief executive Syeda Rizwana Hasan said, “Despite the court order to stop hill-cutting in the Akbar shah area, it hasn’t stopped. We have again brought the matter to the cognizance of the court. The councillor has built a gang and destroyed the hills and springs in the area.”

*This report appeared in the print and online versions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ashish Basu