I always loved this road.
Turn left from Hemayetpur, get on the bypass towards Paturia-Aricha ghat. Once you reach the bridge over the Dhaleswari near Manikganj's Binna Dangi, you have left the city of concrete far behind. The green farmyards on either side of the road, as you drive ahead to Jaigir Bazar and Joymontop, should tranquil your city soul by now. Do not drive past the Kitingchar bridge already, pause there for a moment and take a deep breath; you will know why I love this road.
During my visit to the croplands in Kitingchar last year, I felt a strong contrast between the city I live in and the greenery – less than 20km off Dhaka city – hosted me for a day.
So, this time when I turned left from Rishipara Bazar, a few kilometres ahead of Kitingchar), I hoped for lush greenery, croplands and foliage to greet me. But I was not prepared to see what greeted me instead.
I was not prepared to see the narrow street across South Boro Baka to Baldhara union parishad get me stuck in a tailback of trucks carrying bricks and mud.
The trees on either side of the streets, so far you go, are tanned with reddish dust flying all across. Once the jam began to clear, my mask seemed inadequate to save me from the dust as the trucks raced towards the main road.
Idris Khalifa, a circumciser in his fifties, sitting in a small grocery stall was chewing betel leaf.
"These trucks go on like this 24/7," the circumciser said. "There are around 40 brick kilns in Baldhara union alone. All these trucks are coming from the kilns."
How did so many brick kilns emerge in such a small area? I asked Khalifa.
"The firsts of the Kilns were set up in the late 80s as far as I remember. Only a few, though. Even ten years ago, it was only a few kilns. But in the last ten years, too many kilns were built," Khalifa said, adding, "Because of the continuous movement of trucks, it is hard to walk on the streets anymore. See the dust? Hard to breathe in."
In less than half an hour, I could feel reddish dirt all over my body. My bag, notebook, mobile, shoes and hair, I found reddish, brickish dirt everywhere.
Are you not falling sick with so much dust around?
"It [living in dirt] has become a habit. Nothing beats poor people like us," Khalifa said with a broadened smile; as if he was trying to assuage me because I was visibly irritated with the sight of this beautiful village turning into a dystopian nightmare.
With constant movement of heavy trucks, streets in most villages of Baldhara union, including Boro Baka, Berundi, Kholapara, Rafiqnagar, Paril etc. have been in an awful shape.
A few streets ahead when we reached Berundi, we found the empires of brick kilns scattered across the vast fields. The remaining few croplands only despaired us more at the thought of the ugly transformation of once such a beautiful village.
Not a long time ago, you could see farmers working in the paradise of greenery, domestic animals grazing here and there; you could feel the true meaning of fresh air.
"These brick kilns have changed the face of our locality. Many of our people used to work in croplands before. The kilns destroyed everything. Most of our men now either went abroad [as migrant workers] or work in Dhaka now," said Akram Ali, a man in his sixties, who learned to build ring slabs to adapt to the changes.
Akram Ali told us that many in his village who owned land or had little cash capital turned to brick kiln businesses, leaving farming behind, while some were forced to sell their land to kiln owners.
Are they making a lot of money in the kiln business? I asked Akram.
"Maybe, a few of them," Akram said.
The folly that ruined the foliage
Akram Ali gave us a couple of names who went bankrupt in the brick kiln business in Baldhara. One of them, Idris Ali, lives nearby.
Idris' elder son and manager of his kiln business Liton Hossain said they had two large brick kilns. But they had to sell one that is located at the edge of their house in the vast field – the empires of kilns we just mentioned – to Idris' business partner, while the other kiln has remained shut for two years due to losses and debts.
"Many people jumped at this business with a thought that there was huge profit here," Liton said.
"Yes, you can profit if you have a lot of capital, stock bricks for the right moment to sell them, if coal prices are not so high, or the government allows us to dig soil wherever we like," he added.
Abdul Majed Khan, the incumbent chairman of Baldhara union, also owns a few brick kilns. He said the brick kilns now belong to his son.
In conversation with us, he elaborated how the kilns are not making profits, mainly because of rising coal prices. Like ring slab maker Akram Ali, he also gave us a long list of loss-makers, including his son, in brick kilns.
Some of them have fled the locality under the pressure of debts, the chairman claimed.
"The trend is that whoever earns some money abroad wants to invest in kilns and then many lose everything. My son has more than three crores of taka in debts to various banks and people. Now, think what kind of profits the brick kilns owners are making," Majed Khan said.
"If the brick kilns shut down now, I will not be able to repay the loans even if I sell my home and all my land," he added.
If so, why do you keep setting up so many kilns, damaging the environment so badly? I asked Majed Khan.
"There is no problem with our environment," the chairman refused to admit that kilns have any negative environmental impacts at all.
However, the tale of losses from Majed Khan or Liton's bankruptcy did not make sense of the craze for kilns, which exists not only in Baldhara, but in some other unions of Singair upazila as well.
While these kiln owners cried losses, we have also listened to the stories of how many kiln owners are grabbing farmers' land to expand their kilns empires.
Digging deep: The secret of grabbing farmlands
The day we visited Baldhara, there was a fair marking February 21 in Rafiqnagar, the village where language martyr Rafiq Uddin Ahmed was born.
It was winter, yet the sun was shining too bright. It was hot, and the fair premises were empty. So was the museum and library built in remembrance of martyr Rafiq.
The loudspeaker of the fair was playing one after another strange song, the fair premise was colourful, the library was decorated, but it all seemed so desolate.
After having lunch in Babu's Hotel – Babu is a forty-year-old man who said his lentil would be the best we ever had in our life. Do not trust his lentil – in Eker Mor near Rafiqnagar, we explored the surrounding brick kilns. These kilns are one thing abundant in the entire area.
You may not find enough people, you may hardly spot any kids playing, or any women outside; but there are enough kilns all around.
One elderly man approached us, quite cautiously I would say. Without exposing his identity, he asked us if we know that some brick kiln owners forcefully bought croplands from farmers and turned them into kilns.
"They dig deep ponds around the farmlands, and then the land falls into their ponds," the old man said.
In the Kholapara area, we met another farmer who shared similar stories about kilns owners' greed for farmlands.
Azad Khan, a Singair-based environmental activist, later explained to us the clever ways they grab land. "Suppose, they have bought one of my plots. Now, they dig deep ponds surrounding the land of the farmers who refused to sell their land to them. When farmers' land breaks off into ponds, they cleverly buy those plots of land with force."
"One such group known as Nuru Company [Ms Awal Brick- ABC] forcefully grabbed a lot of land," Azad said. "We have campaigned and protested such land grabbing, but nothing stopped them. They are wealthy, powerful and violent people," he added.
Azharul Islam Arzu, the convener of Save Dhaleswari Campaign, also told us about Nurul Haque – how his company grabbed land not just by digging ponds but also by making truck roads on the fields that contaminate crops with dust and eventually farmers have no other choice but to sell.
We reached out to ABC Bricks' owner Nurul Haque.
He outright rejected the accusations. "No one ever came to me with such allegations. We do not do such things when our own land remains idle," Haque responded.
Allegations of land grabbing, however, are not limited to Nurul Haque or the brick owners in Baldhara and Kholapara areas.
The 80 brick kilns of Singair
Nur Alam, deputy director at the Department of Environment, Manikganj, said there are around 80 brick kilns in Singair upazila. Nearly half of them are in Baldhara and Kholapara areas.
How so many of them in such close proximity were allowed to be built in the first place? I asked the official.
"Before 2019, the law did not specify how many kilns could be developed within a kilometre. So, there are many kilns within a 1km radius in Baldhara, Kholapara and Singair upazila overall. It is not just in Manikganj, such indiscriminate kilns were developed all across Bangladesh before 2019," Nur Alam said.
"But the amended law mentions that you cannot build a second kiln within 1km. Since 2020, we have not permitted any new kilns," he added.
Nur Alam admitted to the existence of such kiln entities who grab land. He said land grabbers "somehow manage to escape" the mobile court actions, and they have largely been let off the hook.
Last year, farmers from Jamirtta came to Singair upazila to protest against the adverse impacts of brick kilns in their village. They also accused the kilns owners of grabbing their land.
"The local administration is well aware of this. The administration operates some routine operations, but the brick owners manage them and continue their illegal operations anyway," Azharul Islam said.
"They have ruined the croplands by constructing brick roads indiscriminately for the movement of trucks. Smoke billowing from their chimneys used to burn bricks damages paddy fields around it," he added.
The 'irreversible' damage to agriculture
Idris Ali and his son, after the kiln business made them bankrupt, are now trying to cultivate their land.
But can you re-cultivate your land after turning them into kilns?
Abu Md Anayet Ullah, deputy director at the Department of Agricultural Extension, Manikganj, said "The land cannot be used for cultivation anymore because there is now no topsoil. When the topsoil is cut off and it gets waterlogged in rain, there is no chance."
Anayet Ullah said ever since he took office in Manikganj three months ago, he already received complaints from farmers because they cannot grow crops, such as mustard, due to the damage done by brick kilns.
"Brick kilns are a massive threat to agriculture. First of all, topsoil, the top layer of ground in which plants grow, is removed. Secondly, fertility is damaged that reduces production. Thirdly, as the toxic elements, such as, nitrates, sulphurs, nitric oxide, are contaminating the air, it threatens fruit production," Anayet Ullah explained.
"We have development projects that do not bother about agriculture. Developing roads and bridges are essential. But we should keep in mind that we do not damage agriculture in the process," he added.
It was late in the afternoon when we reached Akkas brothers' brick kilns in Kholapara. There are two kilns here – one was functional and the other one lost its registration recently.
The functional one was alright – a dozen people here and there were lazily roaming around as they were about to end the day's work.
But the non-functional one was buzzing with life. More than a dozen mud carrying trucks were lined up, while two excavators were digging ponds. They were selling the soil.
As soon as we entered with cameras, and began to take photos, all their activities immediately stopped.
The fear of getting caught by doing something illegal was visible in the poor workers' eyes. Some of the workers rounded near the parked trucks; some walked away.
We had a small window to explore the surrounding areas.
But soon a few people arrived on bikes. They started to follow us, and stared us in the eye. The signal was clear – we were not welcome anymore.
The sun was about to set. The sunset in a Bangladeshi village is always wonderful. But Kholapara is not one of those villages anymore.