Risky living at the foot of the hills does not stop in Chattogram city although there are landslides here every year during the monsoon season, causing deaths of many low income people who live there.
More than 5,000 people from 835 families live on 17 highly risk hills owned by the government and individuals in Chattogram city risking their lives in landslides, according to the Chattogram district administration.
The authorities have not taken any long-term action despite years of deaths at the foot of such risky hills. When heavy rains start in the monsoon, every effort is made to evacuate these residents to safer places.
More than 200 people lost their lives here in landslides in the last 13 years from 2007 to 2020. Due to incessant rains, 127 people died in landslides in 2007 and 30 in 2017.
Of the 835 families living on and around risky hills, 531 are living illegally on 10 high-risk privately owned hills and 304 families live illegally on seven hills owned by various government agencies. Most people living in the hills have low incomes.
Locally influential people are indiscriminately cutting down hills to build makeshift homes and cash in on their need for low rent housing. When it rains, the hill collapses with tragic accidents and consequences.
After landslides, the administration remains active for some time. Then, they stop and the risky living remains as before.
Lately, the district administration has started a drive to evacuate people from the risky settlements to avoid loss of lives due to landslides as torrential rains have started since Sunday morning. About 200 people were evacuated from Moti Jharna, Batali Hill, and Tankir Pahar in the Lalkhan Bazar area on Sunday.
Chattogram District Administration executive magistrate Umar Farooq said, "Teams under the leadership of six executive magistrates have carried out drives to evacuate people living in these risky hills."
Chandgaon Circle assistant commissioner (Land) and executive magistrate Mamnoon Ahmed Anik said, "200 people from 40 families have already been evacuated from the Moti Jharna area on Sunday."
Assistant commissioner (Land, Kattoli) Enamul Hasan said, "We are ready. If anyone wants to go, they will be taken to shelter centres. 12 families have already been evacuated from a risky hill in the Firoz Shah area."
Due to the Covid-19 outbreak, there were no evictions in these hills before the monsoon. Hill grabbers continued to cut down the hills and build structures in the city amid the pandemic.
At a meeting of the hill protection committee on 9 May, it asked service providing companies to provide a list of gas-electricity-water connections to illegal tenements in the hills. They also asked government agencies for a list of illegal settlements which they did not provide in a month.
There are allegations that the administration has not paid much attention to this issue, even though influential people have been cutting down the hills for a long time. Especially in the jungle Chalimpur area of Sitakunda upazila, many people are living there, cutting down hills and building homes.
"I have been living here since 2004. I have a low salary. House rent is low here, so we live here," said Liton Majumder, who lives there at risk.
Daisy Das said, "I started living in the hills of Chalimpur, paying Tk1.20 lakh to a person named Monica Rani. The administration evicted people from illegal housing once. Later, I started building a home here again."
Hena Begum, who lives at the foot of the hill, says she had been hearing about rehabilitation since 2004 but nothing has happened yet. House rent here is low, so she continues to live here knowing the risk.
The Chattogram City Corporation has put up a building in Batali Hill of Lalkhan Bazar to rehabilitate people living in these hills. Later, the city corporation office was moved to the building without rehabilitating the hill dwellers.
According to the Department of Environment (DoE), they took action against 44 individuals and organisations--including government agencies and individuals -- till September 2020 for cutting down hills in Chattogram city.
Mohammad Nurullah Nuri, director of the Chattogram (Metro) DoE, said, "Cases are filed and fines are also imposed regularly to prevent deforestation. But the hill cutting has not stopped."
Environmentalist Professor Mohammad Idris Ali said the hills of Chattogram are of mostly sandy soil. So, landslides occur here in case of more than 200mm of rainfall.
Some identified land robbers are active in cutting down the hills. They collect rent, building installations on the illegally occupied hills. They are also involved in the politics of different parties, he added.
Administration officials remain silent about the hills for 10 months of the year. But during May-June, they launch efforts to evacuate people from the risky hill slopes.
Vested quarters do not want illegal occupants to come down from the hills. Those involved in building illegal installations in the hills must be deterred. If that is not done, the hills will continue to be cut, causing low income people to die in landslides, Professor Idris added.