Numerous stone crushing sites across different upazilas in Sylhet are a severe threat to the environment and public health with sound and air pollution.
Besides, much of the natural beauty of the regions have been stolen by these sites.
Without any environmental clearance, at least 1,500 stone crushing sites have been set up at Sadar, Kompaniganj, Gowainghat, Jaintapur, Dakshin Surma and Kanaighat upazilas of the district, destroying residential areas and arable lands.
Dozens of such sites are being operated in Dhopagul area under the Sadar upazila, on both sides of Sylhet-Companiganj road. Dust of crushed stones spread to the protected areas of nearby Sylhet MAG Osmani Airport. Air passengers passing through the road regularly suffer immensely due to the sound and air pollution caused by the stone crushers.
Three stone crushing mills have been set up just beside the Balapunji Government Primary School at Jaflong under Gowainghat upazila in the district.
In the mills, stones are crushed creating a high grating sound all through the day, darkening the whole surrounding area with clouds of dust from the machines and disrupting academic activities of the local school.
On condition of anonymity, one of the teachers of this school said, "We are forced to keep the doors and windows closed even during the day. Yet the dust and sound cannot be stopped. And the students regularly become ill having coughs and colds."
In a landmark verdict in January, 2017, the High Court ordered establishing a separate stone crushing zone in Sylhet, and relocate all the mills there, citing the issue of environmental disaster caused by stone crushing mills.
The court ordered the district administration to execute its order within three months, but that is yet to be implemented.
Moreover, as per the Stone Crushing Machine Setup Policy-2006, no stone mills can be set up within 500 metres of any educational institution, 100 metres of any residential area or 50 metres of any highway.
Contacted, Sylhet deputy commissioner M Kazi Emdadul Islam said, "We took initiative to set up separate stone mills zone immediately after the court ordered. But businessmen concerned failed to come to terms even after several areas were proposed. At last, we succeeded in sending a proposal to the ministry finalising Tamabil area under Gowainghat upazila for the proposed zone. Construction of the stone mills zone would start as soon as we get feedback from the ministry."
According to Sylhet Divisional Office of the Department of Environment, Ministry of Environment and Forests formulated a policy in 2006 to give legitimacy to stone breaking mills. But, in 2013, the same ministry formulated a separate policy after these open-air mills had caused extensive damage to the environment and public health.
As per the Stone Crushing Machine Setup Policy (Amendment-2013), the primary condition for setting up a stone mill is to establish a stone crusher zone.
In 2015, Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) filed a writ petition with the High Court alleging that the practice of setting up stone mills at open places was continuing directly violating the amended policy's mandatory instruction.
After hearing, in January 2017, the HC ordered setting up separate stone crusher zones within three months.
Contacted, BELA's district coordinator Shah Shaheda Akter told The Business Standard, "After the court order, two initiatives were taken by the district administration to set up the proposed separate zone at Jaintapur and Gowainghat respectively. But both the initiatives nipped in the bud."
"Earlier huge amounts of stones were extracted from Bholaganj and Jaflong areas in the district, that's why stone crushing mills were needed. But stone extraction from both the areas is prohibited now. As a result, at present, 80% stones crushed in the mills are imported from India," she said.
"If crushed stones were imported from India,' she continued, "our environment would not be threatened. And we would not need so many stone crushing machines.
"But, the importers bring big boulder stones from India and crush them into pieces here. As a result, India's environment is being saved while our environment is being severely harmed," the lawyer added.
The 2015 writ mention about 606 illegal stone crushing mills at different places at five upazilas in the district.
In the last five years, the number of stone mills have crossed the 1,500 threshold, claimed BELA sources.
Masud Ahmad Chowdhury, former president of Sylhet Stone Crusher Owners' Association, said it was not possible to set up stone crusher machines in compliance with environmental norms.
Environmental guidelines state that no house, school or hospital can be located in the surrounding 500 metres.
"Where can such a place be found in the country," he wondered, adding, "If you accept this, even 5% stone mills will not survive."
Chowdhury said if all the mills are shut down, a huge stone crisis would be created in the country, besides workers of the sector will be thrown into a disastrous situation.
"So the decision has to be made considering all aspects," he concluded.
Regarding construction of the crushing zone, Chowdhury said, "We have no objection to a separate crushing zone, but it has to be established at a place convenient for the mill owners. Why shall we go to a place where there will be no business?"