Due to illegal cutting of topsoil, sand extraction and construction of human settlement, arable land in Bogura are decreasing at an alarming rate.
According to the district Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE), 1,152 hectares of arable land have disappeared over the past five years, with 50 hectares in the last year alone.
Leaders of a soil protection movement claim the situation is much worse than what the DAE statistics show.
According to agronomists, it is the topsoil of cropland that is fertile, within 10-15 inches of the surface. Once this topsoil is cut away, it takes 25-30 years for the land to regain fertility. And if it is dug repeatedly, the land becomes permanently infertile.
During a recent spot visit, it was found that topsoil of arable lands on the eastern side of Sujabad Government Primary School in Shajahanpur upazila had been cut away indiscriminately, turning a vast area of cropland into numerous ponds. There is no water in those ponds and the croplands are lying fallow.
Local people have been protesting for a long time to protect agricultural land in this area. Abu Zafar, chairman of Sujabad Land Protection Committee and a UP member, has written letters to various government departments to protect cropland in the area, but to no avail.
He said, "At least 100 bighas (62 hectares) of arable land has been destroyed in the area in the last few years. Now, the land cannot even be used for fish farming as it is full of sand.
"We have to find alternatives to building brick kilns on arable lands. Brick kilns cause shortness of breath and the smell of burning coal is hurting people in the area constantly."
According to the Bogura Divisional Environment Department, there are 241 brick kilns in the district, feeding on the topsoil of croplands. Of these, only 17 are legal. More and more agricultural land is becoming infertile supplying soil to these brickfields.
Locals say 37 brick kilns are responsible for the damage to the arable lands.
Bricks are being made in these kilns from the fertile topsoil of arable land. Every year, according to local people, over 100 bighas of cropland is being destroyed by soil traders.
Soil traders said they took a lease of a decimal arable land from farmers for Tk15,000 to Tk20,000 and cut topsoil to a depth of 8-15 feet. Later, each truck of red soil is sold for Tk400 to brick kiln owners. White soil sells for more, at Tk900 to Tk1,000 per truck. If the soil is dug eight feet deep, 32 trucks of soil can be extracted from one decimal of land.
Sources say topsoil cutting is rampant and continues unabated in Khaura and Khalishakandi villages of Khottapara union, Bri-Kushtia village of Chupinagar union, Chakjora village of Ashekpur union, and Kalmachapar village of Kharna union in Shahajahanpur upazila. Most of the topsoil is sold to brick kilns.
Talking to at least 30 farmers of six unions of the upazila, The Business Standard found that topsoil was being cut away from arable lands in these areas for years. Landlords have turned their croplands into ponds, lured by illegal soil traders. In many cases, landowners are even being forced to lease out their croplands as the soil of the neighbouring land has been cut, turning it into a ditch. Even after submitting written complaints to various departments in the administration, the problem has not been resolved, farmers say.
They allege the administration has been bribed. Farmers say thay do not want to protest publicly because soil traders are very influential.
Three years ago, a brick kiln named 'Top' was built on cropland in Khalishakandi village of Khottapara union in Shajahanpur. On the north side of this brick field, 2 bighas of arable land has been dug deep to extract topsoil and local businessman Nurul Islam is selling soil from this land.
The soil has been cut away from more than two bighas of agricultural land next to the Top brickyard, to a depth of about 10-12 feet, or at some points, more than that. There are paddy fields on all three sides of this land.
Nurul Islam said he leased the land from a man named Saju who wanted to dig a pond on his land. He claimed that no other farmer would be affected due to cutting soil there.
About 1km away to the west of the Bogura-Dhaka highway, topsoil of cropland owned by local farmer Abdur Rashid has been cut over 10 feet deep, affecting the adjacent lands which have started subsiding.
Manjurul Alam of the same village has 40 decimal land beside Abdur Rashid's land. He grows pepper on half of this land.
He said due to top soil cutting, croplands in the area had become uncultivable in the last few years. "The soil has been cut 10 feet deep on both sides of my land. Now I am worried about when my land will also collapse," he said, alleging that he was also pressured by land grabbers to sell them topsoil from his land.
Nuruzzaman, president of the soil traders' association in the upazila, said, "There is no law that allows cutting soil from cropland. The soil should be cut from abandoned land. If someone has really cut the topsoil of any cropland, let the administration take action against him."
Shajahanpur Upazila Agriculture Officer Md Noor-e-Alam could not be reached over the phone despite several attempts.
Leasing croplands for topsoil is commonplace in all 12 upazilas of the district. Locals say occasional raids are carried out by the administration against soil traders, but soil and sand extraction resumes within a week.
Sherpur upazila Assistant Commissioner (Land), Shabrina Sharmin, has filed 15 cases under the Sand Quarry and Soil Management Act-2010 in the last five months. In these cases, over Tk7,00,000 in fines have been realised.
Aminul Islam, chief scientific officer (regional laboratory) of the Soil Resources Development Institute in Bogura, said the topsoil contains organic matter. Cutting it away destroys fertility, as well as the water holding and production capacity of the soil, ultimately having a devastating impact on agriculture.
According to the district DAE, 2,24,000 hectares of land in the district is used for cultivation. Arable lands in the district have decreased by 1,952 hectares in the last 10 years.
District DAE's Deputy Director Dulal Hossain said the loss of land in an agriculturally fertile district like Bogura was a terrible sign. "We need to create awareness about this. Croplands need to be saved from the clutches of land grabbers."