The conflicts are around (i) authorization for mechanized collection of stones from two rivers that are popular tourist spots, (ii) leasing out of part of the rivers as stone mohal (area that cane be subjected to leasing), and (iii) employment both in manual extraction versus mechanized extraction.
The division of Sylhet in the north-eastern part of the country has few crystal, transparent rivers including the Piain (55 km), Dawki (10.75 km), and Dhala rivers that flow through Companyganj and Goainghat Upazilas. These three rivers are popular tourist attractions of the country. Another significant economic contribution of these hilly rivers remain the supply of huge volume of stones that have resulted in declaration of Jaflong and Bholagonj stone quarries in the rivers. These stone quarries are two major sources of stones for the country.
Traditionally stones were collected manually from the stone quarries of both Jaflong (within the rivers Piain and Dawki) and Bholaganj (within the river Dhala). It was in 1998 that the Mineral Resources Development Bureau permitted the use of hydraulic excavators in the stone quarry of Jaflong. This authorization came without any assessment of the environmental impact of the same although the area of Jaflong remains exposed to the risks of earthquake due to the presence of the Dawki fault. No environmental clearance was ever accorded in favour of the excavator machines (locally known as Boma (bomb) machines due to the extreme noise they create; basically locally manufactured engine driven heavy excavators) that were capable of extracting stones from 70-80 feet depth. In addition to vibration, noise and dust pollution, the destructive and extremely exploitative mode of collection of stones was damaging the layers of the soil, changing the flows of the rivers and affecting adversely their navigability, increasing the risks of floods and eroding river banks and adjacent agricultural lands.
Local people protested against the mechanized extraction of stones that severely affected their lives, properties and livelihoods. Such mechanized mode of extraction proved devastating for the people of the adjoining 11 villages who lost jobs, properties, crops and livestock and constantly remain exposed to the risks of flood and erosion of the rivers. The tensions around the villagers and the stone collectors took a serious turn in 2006 followed by which an agreement was signed on 6 October, 2006 at the behest of the local Union Chairman (lowest tier of local government) imposing a ban on use of excavators. The said ban unfortunately could not be implemented due to influence and power games played by the mighty stone collectors.
As the locals continued to protest against mechanized extraction of stones, the Bangladesh Water Development Board on 1 February, 2009 prohibited, till further direction, the use of excavator machines in the three rivers. In a subsequent meeting held on 8 March, 2009, a 9-member technical committee comprising representatives of concerned government offices was formed to assess the crisis created by mechanized excavation and make recommendations to address the same.
Unfortunately on the faulty plea of implementing the Annual Development Plan (ADP) for the year 2009 and completely ignoring the concerns of the local people and public agencies, an inter-ministerial meeting held on 24 March, 2009 decided to request revocation of the earlier ban dated 1 February, 2009. This is what led to the filing of a series of cases with contradictory claims about stone extraction.
(1) In the first case (Writ Petition No. 4958 of 2009), a judgment by the Supreme Court dated 14 January, 2010 kept the ban on mechanized extraction of stones.
(2) In the second case (Writ Petition No. 10703 of 2011), the Supreme Court on 5 December, 2012 directed to remove a bridge constructed by the stone traders over the Jaflong (Pian)-Dawki for carrying of stones.
(3) Vide the same judgment, a Writ Petition (No. 10947 of 2011) filed by the stone traders seeking judicial validation of the bridge was rejected.
(4) This second judgment directed the government to declare Jaflong (Pian)-Dawki rivers as Ecologically Critical Area (ECA) under section 5 of the Environment Conservation Act, 1995 and to prepare rules for management of the same.
Following judicial verdicts, the government declared the two rivers as ECA and considering the future threats to the rivers, prohibited all forms of stone collection (manual or mechanized) from the Jaflong (Pian)-Dawki rivers. Against this, two separate Writ Petitions (13075 of 2016 and 14514 of 2016) have been filed under the banners of stone labourers (claiming to be 5 lac in number). In the first case, the Supreme Court on 6 November, 2016 has directed the government to show cause why manual extraction of stones shall not be permitted. On 22 November, 2016, the Supreme Court, in the second case, has directed the government to allow manual collection of stone.
On behalf of the local people, the environmental groups are contesting both the cases.