After a fire broke out at the Kumargaon Power Plant in Sylhet on 17 November, snapping electricity connections for just two days, the people of the city readily felt the significance of water bodies. They rushed to collect water from a handful of ponds in the city.
Even though environmentalists have repeatedly warned against filling the city's ponds, the city corporation itself has been filling the ponds, and this time the Department of Public Works has joined it in its mission.
Last month, the Sylhet City Corporation filled the pond of Sonarpara Mosque in Raynagar area of Ward 19 of the city. This was despite the fact that about Tk1 crore had been spent in the name of renovation and beautification of this pond before it was filled in.
And now, a move has been taken to fill another big pond in the city. The Public Works Department wants to build its office on the space occupied by the pond by filling it. The pond covers an area of 1 acre and 98 decimals at Alampur in Ward 27 of Sylhet city.
When the matter of filling the pond came to light, the Department of Environment carried out an investigation and found proof of the filling of the pond. On 5 November, a notice was served on the executive engineer of the Public Works Department, Sylhet Zone, by the Sylhet divisional office of the Environment Department, asking him to appear at a hearing on 11 November before it regarding the environmental damage caused by the pond filling.
However, on 9 November, the Department of Public Works laid the foundation stone for the construction of a testing laboratory by dumping sand in a part of the pond.
Under the terms of the Natural Resources Conservation Act, filling of ponds, reservoirs, rivers, canals, etc, is prohibited. According to Section 5 of the Act, it is illegal to change, classify or otherwise use, rent, lease or transfer a place identified as a natural reservoir. If a person violates this law, he will be sentenced to five years' imprisonment or ordered to pay a fine of Tk50,000 or both.
Ripon Kumar Roy, the executive engineer of the Sylhet Zone of the Public Works Department, said there had never been a pond here. Being low-lying, waterlogging has occurred here. The plan to build an office here was taken long ago.
However, environmental activists and residents say there has been a pond here for a long time and, besides, the pond was larger than it is at present. The Sylhet Divisional Passport Office was constructed a few years ago by filling some parts of this pond.
Azam Khan, a councillor in Ward 27 of the city corporation, said: "There was a pond in this place before I was born. The local people cultivate fish in this pond through an agreement with the public works department. Recently, I saw that a signboard has been put up here for the construction of the building. Filling the pond is a legal and punishable offence. On top of that, the number of ponds in Sylhet city has shrunk now."
A visit to the area revealed that a signboard had been put up on one side of the pond by the Public Works Department at Alampur in Ward 27 stating, "Designated for Additional Chief Engineer Sylhet Public Works Zone Office and Residence". The foundation slab of the Sylhet Public Works Zone Testing Laboratory has been placed by filling the other side of the pond.
Meanwhile, the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (Bela) inspected the pond on 15 November after receiving complaints from local citizens.
A notice was issued to the public works officer concerned regarding the filling of the pond. Public works officers attended the hearing on 11 November. However, before taking part in the hearing, they filled some parts of the pond with sand. They also claimed there had been no pond there.
Advocate Shah Shaheda Akhtar, Bela's Sylhet divisional coordinator, said, "We verbally requested them in 2012 not to fill the pond. Recently, we visited the pond again after receiving complaints from locals. When I went there, I saw that some parts of the pond had been filled and the foundation stone for the construction of the laboratory building of the Public Works Department had been laid."
She said if officials of a government organisation take such an initiative without following the laws enacted by the government itself, it will encourage more illegal activities.
Regarding the filling of the pond, Mohammad Emran Hossain, director of the Sylhet office of the environment department, said a notice was issued to the public works officer concerned regarding the filling of the pond. Public works officers attended the hearing on 11 November. However, before taking part in the hearing, they filled some parts of the pond with sand. They also claimed there had been no pond there.
At the next hearing, they have been asked to bring land records and documents. This issue has also been raised at the district coordination meeting, he added.
Meanwhile, regarding filling the Sonarpara pond, it is known that in 2018, the city corporation built a guard wall and SS railing around the pond. Ghats were built at a cost of around Tk70 lakh. Then, at the beginning of this year, the city corporation took the initiative to renovate this pond, spending Tk30 lakh on the project. The excavation work of the pond started in February. Interestingly, the pond was filled last month. The intriguing question is why the government spent crores of money on the renovation of the pond given that the pond has now been filled.
Two kinds of statements have been received from the city corporation regarding the filling of this pond.
SM Shawkat Amin Touhid, councillor of Ward 19, said the RCC walls and roads around it collapsed due to excavation of excess soil of the pond. It also caused cracks in the surrounding buildings. "As a result, we had to fill the pond."
Nur Azizur Rahman, the chief engineer of the city corporation, said the pond was owned by a mosque. "We were asked by the mosque committee to fill the pond. They want to build a market here for purposes of earning an income. The pond has been filled considering their application."
Regarding the legal ban on filling the pond, he said, "We know about the ban under the law. We are also not in favour of filling any kind of water body, including ponds. Instead, the city corporation is working to rescue the city's lakes. But as the pond was small and cracks appeared during the excavation, the mosque committee's request was taken into consideration."
The filling of the pond was a clear violation of environmental laws; the city corporation is responsible for protecting the pond. It cannot fill any pond.
Abdul Karim Kim, general secretary of the Paba, Sylhet, said the filling of the pond was a clear violation of environmental laws; the city corporation is responsible for protecting the pond. It cannot fill any pond.
He posed a question: "If the mosque committee wanted to fill the pond, why did it not say that when the pond was being renovated two years ago at a cost of crores of money?"
"We have realised the need to have ponds in the city during the last two days of power outages. The city dwellers have understood how unwise it is to rely entirely on groundwater since the fire at the centre of the grid line. Therefore, everyone should pay attention to protecting the reservoirs," Abdul Karim added.