It is illegal to set up brick kilns on arable land, but in Lakshmipur, kilns are not only built on farmlands, they are also consuming fertile topsoil from the cultivable lands surrounding them.
As a result, agricultural land in the district is shrinking abnormally. Besides, the fume from the brickfields ruining the environment and the trucks and tractors carrying the soil and bricks are damaging rural roads there.
People of Lakshmipur, a small agricultural district in the southern part of the country, are blaming some organisations including the Noakhali regional office of the Department of Environment (DoE) and the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) for giving approval for setting up these brick kilns.
Farmers affected by the brickfields said after the kiln owners cut soil from a piece of land, the surrounding lands get elevated and cannot hold water. During the rainy season, water washes down soil from the elevated farmlands to the low lands belonging to the kilns. So, one brick kiln ruins all the arable land surrounding it and the farmers are forced to sell their topsoil, and often the whole land to the kiln owners.
According to the information of the Brick Manufacturing and Brick Kiln Establishment (Control) Act-2019, no brick kiln can be built on arable land, kept or established near upazila, union or rural roads made by the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED). It also prohibits wood burning at kilns. But the brick kiln owners are breaking almost all these rules in Lakshmipur, alleged local people.
The purpose of the law was to reduce the number of burnt bricks to zero, but every year the brick kilns are increasing in Lakshmipur.
No one has any statistics on the demand for bricks in a year in the five upazilas in Lakshmipur and how many kilns are required for meeting the demand there.
According to the Deputy Commissioner's Office and the DAE in the district, there were 75 brickfields in the district in 2016. But by the beginning of 2021, the number stood at 130. In other words, 11 brickfields were set up in the district every year on an average.
There are 68 kilns in Sadar upazila, 21 in Ramganj, 23 in Ramgati, 13 in Kamalnagar and 5 in Raipur. Although the district administration allows maximum 3 acres of land for setting up brickfields, the owners of the kilns are occupying at least 9-10 acres. That means about 1,000 acres of land have been occupied by the brickfields in the district, alleged the local people.
During visits to the area, nine brick kilns were found in village Andharmanik of Tewariganj union under Sadar upazila alone. Although the whole union is an agricultural area, there are 19 kilns in this union in total.
Besides, nothing but brick kilns are visible in the Bhabaniganj, Mandari, Darbeshpur and Char Ramiz unions of the district. The villagers said all those unions had arable lands.
Asked how much soil is used for making bricks every year, Solaiman, a kiln manager in Sadar upazila, said it usually takes around 0.085 cubic feet soil to make a raw brick, but it may vary according to the size of the brick.
From October to April every year, bricks are burned in at least eight rounds in each kiln. Around 10 lakh bricks are burned in each round.
According to Solaiman, at least 80 lakh bricks are burned in a single kiln every year, so about 100 crore bricks are made for 130 brickfields in Lakshmipur district annually.
According to Solaiman's estimation around 7 crore cubic feet of soil is used for making bricks in the district.
Several other brick kiln managers and brick makers gave similar information.
They further said the number of bricks burnt was supposed to be written in the register book, but the owners of the kilns did not write the actual number to evade VAT. So, the actual amount of soil used in brickfields can be as large as 11 crore cubic feet.
Abdul Baten, a vegetable farmer from village Char Mansa in Bhabaniganj union of Sadar upazila, said there is a brick kiln next to his farmland. The kiln burns bricks there and emits smoke day and night. The horrible sound of soil-carrying tractors on every earthen and paved road in the village can be heard from dawn till late at night. The villagers are completely helpless in this situation.
"At least 30-40 tractors carrying soil enter each kiln every day. It seems like a festival of cutting off soil is going on all over the brick kilns and the surrounding villages," he said.
Siraj Uddin, a resident of Tewariganj union, said some of the brick kilns are legal on paper with all the approvals like DoE's clearance, agriculture department clearance, fire service clearance, BSTI etc. The kilns which are operating without such clearances are illegal. But the process of making bricks, the place where the kilns are set up, the use of fuel, and the process of collecting soil are all illegal.
Arifur Rahman from the same area alleged, "The DoE is giving clearance without any inspection, while the DAE is giving clearance to these brickfields by showing 3 acres of farmlands as barren. This is completely illegal."
Requesting anonymity, a worker of JB Brick Kiln in Bhabaniganj union of Sadar Upazila, said profits from brick manufacturing are huge. That is why some people are desperate to set up brick kilns and they are increasing every year.
According to him, most of the soil traders and owners of kilns are affiliated with one or another political party and some of them are people's representatives. Identified goons in the villages are also involved in buying and selling land. Many traders are forcibly setting up kilns on farmers' lands and collecting soil. Many brick makers are also terrorising the ordinary people.
Kader, a resident of Torabganj village in Kamalnagar, said, "Last year, many trees in my house died because of the smoke emitted from a brick kiln next to the house. I filed a case against the kiln owner, but the relevant offices and the court seems to be in favour of the accused. The brick kiln owners are managing everything overnight with cash."
Lutfur Rahman, headmaster of the Dakkhin Andharmanik High School, said the elderly persons and children often face accidents due to the reckless movement of soil-carrying tractors and pickup vans.
Ahmed Zakaria, a victim of the brick kilns, recently sent a written complaint to the deputy commissioner of Lakshmipur about destroying crop lands and violence committed by brick kiln owners and land brokers.
In addition, the local people have given memorandums to the deputy commissioner at different times, formed human chains under the banner of the card-holding farmers, and held rallies but did not see any result.
Md Ismail Hossain Sabuj, general secretary of the environment organisation Sabuj Bangladesh, said, "In addition to damaging the soil and the environment, the brick kilns also exploit labourers and often employ child labourers. Most countries in the world now do not use burnt bricks. Everyone, including government institutions, must quickly resort to using alternatives of burnt bricks."
Md Shah Alam Patwari, executive engineer of the LGED in Lakshmipur, complained that the rural roads do not sustain due to brick kilns.
"There is no rule for setting up brickfields beside any road built by the LGED, but how can we stop it? There is no representative of the LGED in the committee responsible for approving the brick kilns," he added.
There is no office of the Department of Environment in Lakshmipur district. The Noakhali district office of the DoE looks after the environmental issues of Lakshmipur district. Officials of the DoE office in Noakhali refused to say anything about allegedly giving environmental clearances without inspecting the site or following the regulation.
Tanjid Tareq, assistant director at the DoE in Noakhali, said the concerned deputy commissioner knows everything. "We give information to the deputy commissioner and we are not obliged to give information to anyone else," the DoE official said.
Asked about giving clearance to brick kilns which violate laws, Lakshmipur Deputy Commissioner Anwar Hossain Akand said, "I started a campaign against various irregularities in brick kilns immediately after assuming office in the district and I will continue it."
"The district administration has fixed that no brickfield can have more than 3 acres of land. Land exceeding this limit will not be allowed to be used for brick kilns under any circumstances," he said.
He said he was also looking into other irregularities in the brick kilns.