Mozammel Haque and his wife had an unusual experience during their three-day stay at Lalpur Health Complex and Hospital for the delivery of their child.
They could not sleep at night due to the noise made by the labourers of a brick kiln adjacent to the hospital. They had to breathe in air smelling of burnt bricks.
Like Mozammel and his wife, all the patients and their relatives who come to the health complex undergo severe problems because of the toxic air produced by the brick kiln.
Apart from the sufferings of the patients in the health complex, the brick kiln has been taking a serious toll on the environment, affecting the lives of the people of the area.
The Lalpur Union Parishad office, Lalpur police station and public residences are situated on the south side of the brick kiln, while the Lalpur Health Complex and Hospital is on the east. All these important establishments are located within ten to one hundred yards of the kiln.
To the south of the kiln flows a branch of the Padma River, from where soil is extracted for the kiln. Such extraction causes river erosion that threatens the existence of private residences and government establishments.
The activities of the adjacent union parishad office are considerably hampered owing to smoke emitted from the brick kiln as well as the racket made by the labourers working there.
People living in close proximity to the brickfield are the worst victims in these circumstances.
Local people complain they cannot sleep properly because of the kiln. The horrendous noise caused by trucks being loaded with bricks and compounded by loud music and labourers' activities goes on throughout the night. Students are unable to study properly due to the noise.
As the kiln is run with coal and wood, emitting continuous and profuse streams of unhealthy smoke, the overall environment of the area has been polluted. As a result, the trees in the area can sustain neither their fruit nor leaves. The high heat of the kiln has also affected the underground water level as the tube wells barely produce drinking water. Students are also very adversely affected by the brickfield.
Seeking anonymity, a sexagenarian from the area said, "I have been suffering from breathing problems because of the smoke generated by the brick kiln."
Another person said, "Mango trees in our homestead used to yield lots of the fruit before the brickfield was set up, but the production is very low now. There are even fewer buds nowadays."
Dr Ansarul Haque of Lalpur Health Complex said, "The smoke produced from the brickfield hampers the environment, which harms our health. There should not be any brick kiln adjacent to any hospital. The local administration and environment department should monitor such activities that are a real danger to health."
He also expressed his resentment over the establishment of the brick kiln in a residential area.
The "Brick Making and Brickfield Establishment (Control) (Amendment) Bill 2019" has placed an embargo on the setting up of brickfields in residential, protected, commercial, and agricultural areas. Establishment of brick kilns in the prohibited areas is considered a criminal offence. Any defiance of the law will lead to a maximum punishment of five years in prison or a financial penalty of a maximum of Tk5 lakh or both.
However, VSL Bricks has illegally been running its operations in the heart of a populous neighbourhood at Balitita Ramkrishnapur area in Lalpur upazila of Natore by allegedly managing local administration and influential persons.
Local people feel intimidated and are afraid to raise their voice against the illegal operations of the brick kiln. The reason has to do with some journalists being assaulted by elements hired by the kiln owners when they went there to take photos of the kiln in order to prepare news reports. Their cameras were allegedly broken by the attackers.
VSL Brick was established 10 years ago. Since then, different persons have taken leases on the kiln and have produced bricks there. For the last four years, however, Khairul Basher Bhadu from Balitita Ramkrishnapur along with two partners has been producing bricks without having any license and NOC (No Objection Certificate) from the environment department.
The brick kiln was also fined in the past for violating environmental policies.
Khairul Basher said, "We have applied for a licence and hope to get it soon."
Sadia Afreen, Assistant Commissioner (Land) and acting Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) of Lalpur upazila, said she did not know when the brick kiln had been established.
"I will have to go through the papers of the kiln. If they do not have the permission, we will take action against them because it is not legal to have a brick kiln in a residential area," she added.
Md Shah Riaz, Deputy Commissioner of Natore, said, "We will take necessary action after scrutinising the papers of the brick kiln. If any rules are violated, I will close the brick kiln with the help of the UNO."
Mamunur Rashid, deputy director at the Rajshahi district department of environment, said, "So far as I know, they have not taken any NOC from the environment department. If they had taken any NOC, I would be aware of it. There is no question of permitting a kiln in a residential area. We will conduct a drive soon and close down the brick kiln."
According to the Rajshahi department of environment, there are 374 brick kilns in Rajshahi, Chapainawabganj and Natore. Of these, 160 do not have any NOCs from the environment department. Of the 137 brick kilns in Rajshahi district, 98 are operating without obtaining permission from the environment department. Meanwhile, 23 of 122 brick kilns in Natore and 39 of 115 brick kilns in Chapainawabganj do not have the required NOCs from the environment department.