ABID AZAD

Things that make you to Think

Stone Mining

This story about the yin and yang of stone mining from cultivable lands in Panchagarah district, the extreme northwest of Bangladesh, has been published at Morning Tea, a weekly magazine of The Daily Sun, as its cover story, under the title No Stone Unturned on 1st June, 2012. (Official archive is unavailable)

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Jalil Uddin, resident at Darjipara under Tetulia upazila in the district of Panchagarh, has been quite worried since the balcony of his house collapsed a few months ago. At first, he thought something was wrong with his house. Later, however, he came to know that it was because of the stone extraction taking place near his house; stone miners were digging up stones and sand from nearly 30-40 feet below the surface. Jalil Uddin now fears that his house might collapse any day.

Aynal Mia took up stone mining as a profession very recently. Formerly a farmer, he suffered huge loss twice is Aman and IRRI paddy cultivation, due to lack of proper irrigation system and adequate water. He also did not get any help or facility from the Upazila Agricultural Office in Tetulia. Left with no other options, Aynal Mia was forced to turn to stone mining.

While visiting the area, this reporter met many people like Aynal who had turned their backs on farming and took up stone mining to earn their living. The reason? Stone Mining is far more lucrative, bringing in more money than farming ever had. The miners usually start working very early in the morning and carry on till dusk, because the more they dig up stones, the more money they get. The land owners, who cannot bear the expense of stone excavating, lease their lands for a lucrative amount of money to the stone mining agencies, who in turn employ the labourers with high wages.

Stone, pebbles and sand are excavated from the underground layers, digging down generally from 20-50 feet, depending on how far down the miners can go. Fascinatingly enough, this reminds us of the tale of the golden goose and her golden eggs.

Anwar Islam, a 45-year-old man, returned home after leaving his job as a driver in Dhaka when he learned about stone mining and its profitability as a profession. He found it out from one of his neighbours who leased his one-bigha land for Tk 200,000 to a businessman for stone extraction.

Anwar did not lease his land; rather, he started the business himself by employing around 50 people to excavate stones from his land. It has been nearly three months since he started, but he is yet to earn the profit from the business as he expected; what is worse, he is now facing a loss of Tk 200,000.

It is now a common scenario in Panchagarh; most landowners in the district are leasing their lands for stone mining to earn a large amount of money within a very short time. However, in some unfortunate cases, some powerful businessmen who have powerful political connections in the area have been found to be involved in grabbing lands for stone mining. Sometimes, even the government-owned lands or rivers are not spared from their clutches.

As a consequence, many people in Panchagarh are now involved in stone mining, directly or indirectly, giving up farming in their own land or others’. As extraction is not conducted in a planned way, its effect on the region’s geography is rather questionable.

“The excessive and unplanned extraction of stone, pebbles and sand will have a serious effect on the areas underground. It may cause the ground water level to decrease and the different layers of ground-earth to be hampered,” says Professor Syed Humayun Akhter, geologist at the Geology Department of Dhaka University.

This reporter spoke with Priyasindhu Talukder, the Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) of Tetulia, about what is happening in his jurisdiction. Interestingly, despite knowing that such unplanned extraction of stones and sand may be hazardous for the inhabitants of his upazila, he found the whole situation rather funny and said, “There are a lot of miracles happening in Panchagarh. Where are all these stones coming from even after years of extraction? Another miracle! Who knows when there will be no stones left under the ground! I do not understand the geographical situation of this area and its people!”

The negligence regarding this district’s people, environment, socio-economic and geographical situations is evident in the UNO’s voice. The concerned inhabitants of Panchagarh are dismayed by their situation; in their own words, “Our district is the most neglected district in the country. Our people have no job opportunities, no development in education, agriculture, medical facilities. There are no well-developed sectors or services in this district. Those who show promise and brilliance in academics leave home for better opportunities.”

Panchagarh is located at the extreme northwest of Bangladesh, with an area of 1404.53 sq-km and bounded on three sides by 286.27 km of Indian border. Its soil is sandy, alluvial and bears close affinity with the soil of the old Himalayan basin. The main rivers of this district are Karatoya, Atrai, Teesta, Mahananda, Tangon, Dahuk, Pathraj, Bhulli, Talma, Nagar, Chawai, Kurum, Versa, Tirnoi and Chilka. The northern part of the district is rich with underground layers of pebbles and stones.

Stone mining is taking place in the entire district, more or less. Stones are excavated both manually and with drill-dredger machine. Manually, 30-50 or even more people can collect stones at a time by digging the ground earth. A six-cylinder drill machine, however, can extract stones, sand and pebbles directly from the underground layers, and does the work of at least 500 labourers.

Experts say that stone extraction using the drill-dredger machine can prove to be more dangerous than manual excavation and may cause damage to the water level and other different layers beneath the ground surface, which can be extreme, as no one can see exactly what damage is being done. For this, the ground may collapse at any time, without any warning. However, as local people, journalists and respected personalities protested several times against it, the miners have stopped using drill-dredging machine.

Nevertheless, the concerned people fear that if the government does not come forward to handle this situation properly, the miners may start using the machine again, and soon.

While visiting many areas of Panchagarh, this reporter found that most inhabitants of the district have turned their back on their family legacy and given up farming. They now prefer to work in stone mines. This certainly causes a negative impact on the district’s agricultural sector. As many workers in the mining fields told this reporter, if they do farming, they earn Tk 200-300 a day, whereas they can earn Tk 400-500 or even more per day if they dig up stones. A stone dealer employs 30-50 people, or even more, and each labourer get paid on the basis of how many stones they have extracted in a day, rather than on a daily basis. If the stones are bigger in size, they get paid better.

For this reason, landowners cannot find manual labourers to work on their land for farming. Those who are still farmers produce corn instead of paddy, as corn cultivation requires little care. However, as corn is not a staple food in the country and only necessary for poultry and fish feed production, not much profit can be expected from corn cultivation.

This reporter talked with Shahriar Rahman, the Superintendent of Police (SP) in Panchagarh, about the unplanned stone mining in his area and its possible effects. He commented, “We have tried to discourage people to stop stone mining for a number of times. But we can hardly say or do anything when they ask, ‘Sir, please give us a job or any source of income. We will stop stone mining’.

As there is not enough employment by the government, zilla or upazila authorities, people do not have many options to earn their living. They cannot carry one farming due to the reduced rainfall, reduced water flow in most of the rivers, insufficient electricity and the high price of diesel.”

Local people, newspaper correspondents currently stationed in the area, administrative officials, police officials, etc have a lot to say regarding the issue. Some of them say, “We have around 22 small and large rivers. Almost all of them are either dead or close to dying. When water is released from India, our rivers and lands are flooded for a few hours, but after then it is same as before. There is just not enough water for irrigation. How can we cultivate crops?” No wonder stone mining looks so lucrative to these poor people.

In addition, local people and journalists alleged that some stone traders/mining agents are grabbing lands as well as making dams in the rivers to extract stones. This reporter came across one such case in Roushanpur union in Tetulia, where he found out that 56 businessmen were sharing profit earned from stone excavation, which they are doing in the River Dahuk by building a dam.

Sajib, one of the shareholders, said, “These lands were leased to us. When our stone extraction is complete, we will take down the dam.”

When asked about this matter, Ahmed Kabir, Additional Deputy Commissioner (Admin), who is now Acting DC, said, “We did not hear about such case. If it is true, we will take action immediately.”

At the time this report was being written, the stone extraction in that river had not stopped yet, as this reporter was informed by the locals.

These corrupt businessmen are not beyond grabbing government lands either. Moreover, their land-grabbing tendency often causes unrest among the traders or with the landowners.

A Police official from Panchagarh Sadar thana informed this reporter that there was even a murder in 2009 in connection with stone mining, and riots between landowners or stone dealers are a common occurrence.

In March this year, Rana Mohammad Sohel, a retired army official and COO of Jemcon group, was badly injured along with some other employees; this incident is also allegedly connected to stone mining in this region.

“Their main target is not only to take over our land, but to take it only to extract stones for a year. Moreover, due to their unplanned stone mining, soil erosion is taking place underneath the ground surface, which is severely affecting our trees. It is a threat to our tea plantation. Dahuk River is almost dead because of them,” said Rana.

SP Shahriar Rahman said, “These businessmen are taking over lands only for stone excavation. When they are done with their job, they leave these lands. When they are done, these lands turn into 20-30 feet deep pits. They do not bother to fill up these pits as it is a costly job. Because of this, people who own these lands cannot do anything on them for the next 10-15 years.”

However, to some, stone excavation on such scale may seemingly become beneficial for the ground water reserve in the region. According to Dr Md Eftekharul Alam, agriculture, water and environment engineer and specialist at BADC, such excavation is creating deep ponds that can hold rainwater, which will later be a good source for groundwater reservation.

The problem is, such reserve needs heavy rainfall in the first place. However, if the rivers could get their regular water flow back, people would have the option of fishing to earn their livelihood, while they could be a good source of irrigation water. At the same time, the ponds can be a good place for fish farming as well.

Taking both the good and the bad effects of stone mining into consideration, steps has to be taken so that purposes of all parties involved are served, and people and environment of the district are also protected from any harm in the long run.

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