Shah Arefin Tila, a small hill in Sylhet's Companiganj upazila, has almost disappeared because people are illegally taking away stones from it. Such rampant stone extraction also poses a serious threat to the environment. The hill or 'tila' which covers an area of 137.50 acres, has now become a wasteland with a large number of deep holes.
The Jaflong area in Gowainghat Upazila is in critical condition and is losing its appeal as a tourist spot because of the air and noise pollution emanating from the stone quarries there.
The unbridled stone extraction in many areas of Sylhet not only claims lives, it also destroys the environment and the ecology.
Data from the Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association (Bela) reveals that 76 workers were killed and 21 injured in the illegal stone quarries in Sylhet between January 2017 and January 2020. Two workers were killed in the Shah Arefin tila on February 2 this year.
In 2012, a 15-kilometer stretch of land along the Piyain River in Jaflong was declared an Ecologically Critical Area to save it from destruction.
Despite the ban on stone extraction imposed by the ministry and by the court, unscrupulous stone traders continue the extraction through political backing and the indifference of the administration.
In 2016, the Mineral Resources Ministry banned stone extraction from five quarries – Jaflong, Bholaganj, Shah Arefin Tila, Bichhanakandi and Lovchora – to prevent environmental disasters. The High Court banned the use of stone crushers at all quarries in Sylhet based on a writ filed by Bela in 2014.
The local administration says that it often checks different quarries in Sylhet to stop illegal stone extraction. They said that in the last 15 days, they raided several stone quarries and destroyed machines used for stone extraction worth about Tk15 crore.
Local Awami League leader and Companiganj upazila parishad chairman Shamim Mia allegedly leads the syndicate that illegally extracts stones in Bholaganj and Shah Arefin Tila. They use political influence to defy the ban.
In 2017, the Department of the Environment sued 22 people, including Shamim, for destroying the environment through stone extraction. But none of them have been arrested because of their political backing.
Denying involvement in the stone trade, Chairman Shamim Mia said, "I was involved in it before, but after being elected chairman I have no connection with it."
Companiganj upazila Nirbahi officer Sumon Acharya emphasised the need for a coordinated effort to totally stop stone extraction. "The administration alone will not be able to bust the syndicate that controls the quarries," he added.
Faruk Ahmed Chowdhury, the president of Sushashoner Jonno Nagorik's Sylhet chapter, alleged that the stone trade continues unabated in the area only because it has political backing. There is a rare consensus between the Awami League and the BNP in looting stones. They share the profit at a 70:30 ratio.
Abdul Karim Kim, the general secretary of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolon's Sylhet chapter, said criminals continue this illegal business because of political backing coupled with inadequate action by the administration. So all our efforts were in vein.
Sylhet Deputy Commissioner Kazi Emdadul Islam said, "We hold the strict position that stone extraction has to be stopped to save the environment. Our recent action will prove it. We are determined to restore the former glory of Jaflong."
"We are trying to convince the stone traders to invest in tourism instead. This will also create employment opportunities for stone quarry workers," he added.