Custodians the culprit

2009-08-10__f01Sand traders feast on greed of BIWTA staff
Powerful dredgers at work extracting sand from the Buriganga offshore at Basila on the outskirts of the capital city yesterday.Photo: STARMorshed Ali Khan and Tawfique Ali

A section of BIWTA officials are allegedly allowing sand traders to extract much more sand than the permitted quantity from riverbeds in the capital, an act that is threatening the channels and courses of the city’s rivers and the densely populated localities along their banks.

Officials of the hydrography, port, conservancy and engineering departments of Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority and top officials at its headquarters at Motijheel have been involved in issuing work orders to powerful sand traders.

The unscrupulous traders then extract millions of cubic feet of sand from the rivers in the most unscientific way to make hefty amounts. One square feet of sand costs Tk 2 at the selling point.

The BIWTA officials are taking advantage of the absence of a policy or rules for sand extraction from riverbeds in port areas, where the BIWTA virtually enjoys total jurisdiction under the Port Act and Port Rules.

The BIWTA issued 18 permissions to private companies this year to extract sand from the Buriganga.

In one recent instance, the BIWTA issued permission to Ali International Associates on June 26 to extract 10 lakh cubic feet of sand from areas near Basila and Jhaochar with three dredgers for 30 days.

The company, however, deployed 14 powerful dredgers in the area to lift a lot more sand than it is permitted.

An investigation by The Daily Star reveals that in connivance with the officials of the BIWTA the company is actually extracting sand at least 10 times the permitted quantity.

It instantly sells the sand to the booming construction sector in the capital.

The massive sand extraction raised alarm among the residents of Basila and the BIWTA suspended the permission following a report published in The Daily Star on July 13.

Dismayed by the suspension, officials of Ali International Associates openly said that they had given huge amounts of bribe to BIWTA officials in the hydrography, port, conservancy and engineering departments and at the headquarters to obtain the permission. They also vowed to return to extract sand.

On Friday, the company returned to the site with more dredgers and resumed extracting sand, claiming that they filed a writ petition with the High Court against the BIWTA decision.

Yesterday scores of vessels were seen lined up at Basila to carry sand amid continuous patrolling by hoodlums hired by the company in mechanised boats.

Residents of Basila said they feel very insecure about their homes because of a serious threat of riverbank erosion.

Engineers of the under-construction third Buriganga Bridge also expressed concerns, saying the foundation of the bridge will be under risk if so much sand is lifted from an area so close to it.

Senior Deputy Director and Port Officer (Dhaka River Port) Golam Kabir said his office did not take any action against Ali International Associates as he heard that the company had obtained a court order against the BIWTA decision of suspending the work order.

He, however, admitted that he has not seen or received any certified copy of the court order.

“I have not sent any official to the site as I have not received any complaint from anybody,” Kabir said. “They [Ali International Associates] must have obtained a stay order against the BIWTA suspension order.”

He termed the third Buriganga Bridge authority’s claim false, saying, “Those engineers are lying. The sand extraction site is quite far away.”

Asked about the necessity of such commercial activities at the cost of natural course and environment of a river, Kabir said when interested parties or contractors apply for sand lifting, BIWTA’s hydrography department carries out a survey and files a report. Then the port, conservancy and engineering departments examine the report and approve the work.

The state coffers get about Tk 0.40 per square feet of sand extracted from the riverbed.

Kabir said the BIWTA chairman gives the final approval.

Usually, the chief engineer of BIWTA’s dredging department asks for proposals from port officers on required dredging for maintaining navigability in a river.

At present, only Ali International Associates has an official work order to extract 10 lakh cubic feet of sand in the Dhaka river port area. There are other unauthorised sand lifters as well.

Faizur Rahman Khandker, director of Hydrography Department, said the BIWTA departments of port, conservancy and engineering together submit a proposal on how much sand and mud should be extracted from riverbeds for the navigability of a river. Hydrography department carries out a pre-dredging survey and also prepares an alignment.

But sand extractors often deviate from the approved alignment to maximise their commercial gain, he added.

Although the Hydrography Department is supposed to oversee the contractors’ extraction work if the local BIWTA office demands for, it never gets any request.

“The local office should constantly monitor such work and inform the Hydrography Department but I am not aware of sand lifting in the Buriganga near Basila.” Khandker said.

BIWTA Director (port division) Mahabubul Alam said there are no specific policies for sand extraction from riverbeds. “Generally, we call for a spot quotation for the work,” he said.

The BIWTA chairman is authorised to issue work order for sand lifting in a river port area while the land and shipping ministries approve work which is out of the port’s jurisdiction.

The district administration of Narayanganj and Munshiganj maintains and leases out annually half a dozen “balu mahal” (designated sand pits) in the Meghna and Dhaleshwari outside the port areas.

Asked why BIWTA embarks on the process of issuing work order on applications submitted by private companies while the Buriganga requires no dredging at all, Mahabubul said the practice has existed for long.

BIWTA Chairman Md Abdul Mannan Howlader said, “Commercial sand lifters neither have required technology to extract sand from the riverbeds nor can they do it practically.”

Abdul Matin, chief engineer of the BIWTA Dredging Department, said unscientific sand extraction from the riverbeds not only makes the rivers extremely unpredictable but also destroys their courses, navigable channels and environment.

Raqibul Islam, executive engineer of Dhaka Circular Waterway Project, under which the navigability of the Buriganga was ensured only four years ago, said the river is fully navigable and requires no further dredging.

The Daily Star

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