Over a decade ago, Ashiyan City real estate company grabbed the attention of people with a beguiling promotion blitz.
It showed an elderly man sending his three expatriate sons three bottles of mustard oil – a sly reference to a popular idiom in Bangla – by parcel mail and advising them to rest at ease because he had purchased three plots of land for them in Ashiyan City.
The television commercial was followed by a series of housing fairs in different countries including the United States, Australia and the United Arab Emirates, prompting many expatriate Bangladeshis to book for plots in the project advertised to be close to the capital city centre.
One such expatriate is Ajmal Hossain, who bought two plots for Tk70 lakh in 2007 while working in Dubai.
Eighteen expatriates including Ajmal bought 41 plots at Ashiyan City but none of them have got their land yet.
He told TBS, "I bought the plots with all my savings. I am yet to get hold of the plot. I only got the receipt of payment and an allotment letter."
After many failed attempts to get possession, they eventually filed a case against Ashiyan Managing Director Md Nazrul Islam Bhuiyan.
It rather pushed them into further trouble, inviting harassment and threat on life.
"I fear for my life. Hired goons start to threaten me whenever I want to talk about the plot," said Ajmal Hossain.
This is the story of Ashiyan plot buyers who are now left with nothing but a receipt for payment and a plot allotment paper.
Frequenting Ashiyan City's office for years for possession of the plot or refund of the money, cheated buyers filed more than 50 cases between 2012 and 2018 against Ashiyan City with Khilkhet and Uttara police stations.
The police have not filed a charge sheet in any of the cases so far.
Apart from this, 15 cases have been filed in the court. The court directed the police to investigate these cases. The police have not submitted any investigation report so far.
The Ashiyan City project was declared illegal by the higher court.
But no remedy for deceived home buyers---neither plot possession, nor the money back.
The city's development authority, Rajuk, does not have any answer, too.
The victim's wait for justice prolongs and police investigation goes slow.
"I have given up the hope of getting the plot," Ajmal said in utter despair.
Unlawful growth of Ashiyan City
In 2006, Ashiyan Lands Developments Limited started selling plots in its Ashiyan City project – located in Uttarkhan, Dakshinkhan, Barua and Dumni mouzas of the capital.
A preliminary investigation by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has revealed that Ashiyan Lands Developments owned by Md Nazrul Islam Bhuiyan got over Tk2,000 crore by "selling" about 6,500 five-katha plots worth Tk30-35 lakh each in the project till 2012.
According to the Ashiyan City Plot Owners Cooperative Society, about 80% of the plots have been bought by expatriates.
According to the ACC investigation, the amount of land supposedly sold in Ashiyan City is ten times more than the actual amount of land in the project area.
Moreover, a large portion of land owned by the housing company in the project area had been forcibly occupied by it.
In 2011, with the help of Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the Department of Environment visited the project area and found that Ashiyan Lands had created plots by grabbing land, houses and even burial grounds of many local people. They also illegally occupied khas land – land owned by the government – and wetlands, which is also illegal.
Ahsan Habib, one of the several hundred people to lose land to Ashiyan, said, "I had 16 kathas of land. In 2008, I rejected an offer made by the project authorities to buy this land for only Tk10 lakh. One morning I saw that my land had become a plot in the Ashiyan City's Block C."
When he tried to recover his lands, the Ashiyan City authorities filed three false cases, including extortion, against Ahsan Habib. His son was also beaten up several times. The police did not help him.
A statement from the Department of the Environment said, "Ashiyan Lands Developments Ltd is building an illegal housing project by destroying houses, graves and trees with bulldozers, creating unprecedented terror."
Nazrul Islam Bhuiyan, managing director of Ashiyan Lands, was fined Tk50 lakh for illegal activities. Ashiyan City officials also promised to pay the owners of the land, saying they would not proceed with any development work without permission.
Ashiyan City authorities have not kept any of these promises. The Tk50 lakh fine was later reduced to Tk5 lakh.
When contacted, AKM Rafiq Ahmed, director general of the Department of Environment, declined to comment on this.
Plots in design, not in reality
During the BNP government in 2005, Ashiyan City got approval from Rajdhani Unnoyan Kartripakkha (Rajuk) and Dhaka district administration to develop 43 acres of land for the project.
Ashiyan increased the area of land to 1,197 acres, almost 30 times the original area, and obtained the approval of Rajuk and the district administration later using political influence.
In reality, this amount of land was never in the project area. Ashiyan City has sold many plots without an inventory.
Rajuk Chairman Saeed Nur Alam said, "This happened a long time ago. Rajuk had another chairman at that time. I am not familiar with the matter well.
"However, Rajuk has taken all possible steps to stop the activities of Ashiyan as per the directives of the High Court."
According to a source close to the ACC, the commission's preliminary investigation found that the land purchased by Ashiyan Lands Developments Limited for Ashiyan City was 3,180 kathas (159 bighas). But it sold plots equivalent to over 32,000 kathas of land.
Supreme Court injunction on Ashiyan City
On 22 December 2012, eight environmental and human rights organisations, including Ain O Salish Kendra, filed a writ petition in the High Court, seeking a ban on the activities of Ashiyan City.
The High Court imposed an interim injunction on the activities of Ashiyan City and ruled in January 2014 that the Ashiyan City project was illegal.
After that, another larger bench of the High Court also heard the review petition against the verdict. The apex court in August 2016 quashed the earlier High Court order.
When the petitioning organisations filed a leave to appeal against the judgment of the review bench, the Appellate Division stayed the order of the larger bench on 7 August 2017.
At the same time, a full hearing was ordered on the appeal. After more than three years, the appeal has not yet been settled.
Attorney General AM Amin Uddin told TBS that the appeal against Ashiyan City was presented for hearing in the ongoing virtual Appellate Division last August. The court then said a physical hearing would be held after the Appellate Division starts to function in normal time.
When contacted, Mohammad Borhan Uddin, officer-in-charge of Khilkhet Police Station, told TBS, "We are investigating the cases filed against the Ashiyan City's managing director. Some investigations are nearing completion. We will be able to submit charge sheets of several cases and final reports of others within a short time."
Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), said, "Hopefully, a specific instruction will be obtained from the court in this regard."
Asked about this, Housing and Public Works Secretary Shahid Ullah Khandaker told TBS, "The Supreme Court has banned all activities of Ashiyan City. The case has not yet been disposed of by the Appellate Division. That is why it is not possible to comment on this."
He, however, said the ministry is looking into how Rajuk and Dhaka district administrations gave approval to Ashiyan City to implement the project on so much land.
TBS tried to contact Ashiyan City Managing Director Nazrul Islam Bhuiyan both in person and over the phone for his statement on the overall matter, but no response was received.