Chattogram Wasa recently launched a sewerage treatment plant project in Halishahar of the port city, but the owners of land in the project area have alleged that the land was not acquired properly.
Responding to the landowners' appeal regarding the matter, a Chattogram court on 6 April ordered a halt to the project work until further hearing. When Chattogram Wasa officials appeared before the court and presented their arguments on 11 April, the court directed a continuation of the government's priority project involving Tk3,808 crore.
At the same time, the court ordered continuing hearings on the case, noting that if the plaintiff's claim on the land is proved, the authorities concerned would have to compensate them.
Chattogram Wasa, Chattogram deputy commissioner and the Water Development Board have been made defendants in the case.
Syed Muhammad Enamul Haque Muniri, who filed the case on behalf of the aggrieved landowners, said the case would be taken up to the High Court if necessary.
According to the landowners, the government of Pakistan started acquiring around 164 acres of land at Halishahar in Chattogram city for a water supply and sewerage project in 1963 and transferred it to Chattogram Wasa in 1967.
As the project was not implemented, the then deputy commissioner of Chattogram ordered a de-requisition of 134.145 acres of acquired land on 5 August 1970.
"The land was acquired in 1963 and then it was de-requisitioned, but it was not handed over to the owners formally. In 2001, the landowners filed a writ petition in the High Court, which in response said the acquisition was not appropriate," said Barrister Afroza Akhtar, who is representing landowners.
Later, in the wake of the leave-to-appeal filed by the Chattogram Wasa authorities in 2017, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court upheld the High Court's order.
"Despite the Appellate Division's order, Wasa launched the project forcibly this year," said Barrister Afroza Akhtar.
The Water Supply and Sewerage Authority (Wasa) entered into an agreement with the South Korean company Taeyoung Engineering and Construction Co Ltd to set up the sewage treatment plant project on 11 January this year.
Syed Muhammad Enamul Haque Muniri, who filed the case on behalf of the landowners, told TBS, "We are not opposing the implementation of the sewerage treatment plant project, but according to the Supreme Court's decision, Wasa cannot re-occupy the land by revoking the de-requisition order."
"As per rules, the project owner has to acquire the land again by compensating the owners properly, but Chattogram Wasa has not taken any such initiative. Rather it wants to occupy the land by force. How can landowners tolerate such manifest injustice?" asked Muniri.
Muniri said initially around 400-500 people owned the disputed land, but currently there are 8,000 owners. He filed a case in a Chattogram court on 25 March 2020, seeking prohibition on illegal use and encroachment on 163.85 acres of agricultural land.
The court accepted the case and issued a show cause notice on the defendants, including Chattogram Wasa, but as the Wasa authorities did not appear in court on 6 April this year, it prohibited activities under the sewerage project until the next hearing, said Muniri.
Asked about the case, Chattogram Wasa Managing Director AKM Fazlullah said Wasa had not received any summons regarding the case.
Although the Chattogram Wasa managing director claimed that he had not received the summons before the hearing on 6 April, The Business Standard has obtained a copy of the receipt that proves that his office received it.
Senior officials involved in the project said their representative appeared before the court on 11 April after receiving the court's interim order on halting the project until further hearing.
Visiting Chowchala area in North Halishahar and Anandabazar area in central Halishahar on Friday afternoon, this correspondent spotted acres of agricultural land being filled with sand extracted from the sea. More than 50 workers and four excavators are deployed there.
Md Shafiul Alam, a farmer in Chowchala Pachghar Para area, told TBS, "The land of our forefathers is being taken away in the name of the project, which had been cancelled before independence."
Another farmer, Md Abdur Rahim, said, "I have cultivated eggplants and leafy vegetables on four bighas of land I inherited from my ancestors. I was supposed to harvest them within a few days, but now I am afraid that the land will be filled with sand any moment."
"The authorities are taking away my means of livelihood. If this land is taken away, I will have no other option but to commit suicide. We want compensation," he added.
Work on the preparation of the Drainage and Sanitation Master Plan of Chattogram city began in 2013 with funding from the World Bank. The master plan recommended dividing the entire city into six zones and setting up six sewage treatment plants as well as two fecal sludge treatment plants.
Wasa signed an agreement with Taeyoung Engineering and Construction Co Ltd of South Korea for the first phase of the project in January this year and started filling the project area with earth in April.