Nearly 13,000 hectares of arable lands in Chattogram have disappeared in the last 10 years, thanks to mindless housing and industrialisation.
Real estate developers are to blame for the situation. They have defied all legal barriers to construct buildings and brick kilns on the farmlands at the outskirts of the port city, including Chandgaon, Bayezid, Pahartoli, Halishahar, and Patenga.
In addition to arable lands, wetlands and water bodies in the area are also being filled up to construct high-rise complexes.
Recently, developers have encroached upon more than 121 hectares of the Lala Chandra Beel, a 405-hectare water body of historical interest located at Shikarpur village in Hathazari upazila of Chattogram.
The water body has been named after Zaminder Lala Chandra who, during the Mughal era, came from Kolkata to settle in Hathazari. The water body is regarded as a heritage site of Chattogram.
The authorities concerned seem to have been reluctant in taking actions against the developers who have been filling it, locals alleged.
Over the last one decade, Chattogram saw a sharp rise in the construction of residential estates, locals living near the Lala Chandra Beel said.
Filling cultivable lands and wetlands by real estate developers is illegal. But, housing companies in Chattogram are defying all laws and encroaching on farmlands and wetlands to turn them into residential complexes.
The Chattogram Development Authority's Chief Town Planner Shahinul Islam Khan said they do not approve construction of buildings on arable lands.
"The structures built on farmlands are not legal and will be demolished any time," he said.
This correspondent saw several multi-storeyed buildings at Bathua part of the Lala Chandra Beel. In addition, farmhouses were built on the croplands. Some of the real estate companies put up signboards in the area while some lands were being filled with soil.
Locals said the livelihood of farmers is at stake. They are facing forced displacement. If such activities by real estate companies continue, it will leave lasting effect on the food security and livelihood in the area.
Md Nasir Uddin, the deputy director of the Department of Agricultural Extension in Chattogram, said unplanned urbanisation and industrialisation are eating up farmlands in Chattogram.
Brick kilns were built by encroaching on some hectares of arable lands. In addition, river erosion and climate change have caused extensive damages to croplands, he said.
Besides, an increased level of salinity in the coastal areas has been leaving negative effects on the agricultural lands, Nasir added.
In 2008-09, Chattogram, Cox's Bazar, Feni, Noakhali and Lakshmipur districts under the Chattogram division had 7.18 lakh hectares of arable lands. But it reduced to 7.05 lakh hectares in 2017-18, according to the Department of Agricultural Extension.
At the same time, the area of one-crop lands has also decreased. In those 10 years, the size of one-crop lands reduced by over 20,000 hectares to 1.70 lakh hectares.
But by this time, the number of families depending on agriculture increased by over 1,50,000 to around 17.36 lakh in the area.
M Abdur Rahman, a climate impact researcher and analyst in Chattogram, said research conducted in six districts of the country reveals that constructing residential buildings on arable lands is the top reason why agricultural lands are decreasing in Bangladesh.
"A comprehensive planning is necessary to protect arable lands which are disappearing fast, threatening the country's food security," he suggested.