The government decision of building Bangabandhu International Airport covering an area that includes thousands of acres of agricultural land and the biggest wetland near the capital without any feasibility study and environment impact assessment (EIA) has triggered mass protests in the localities.
The proposed site of the airport consists of more than 25, 000 acres of land in three upazilas of Dhaka and Munshiganj districts.
The authorities have already started the process of acquiring these lands in Arial Beel (wetland) — 10, 895-acre in Sreenagar upazila of Munshiganj, and 7, 017 acres in Nawabganj and 7,188 areas in Dohar upazilas of Dhaka.
“We have just selected the site, and it (airport) will be built on the basis of public-private partnership basis. So, we are acquiring land and then we will express our interest to attract investor. The investor will conduct all sorts of feasibility study and EIA,” Chairman of Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh Air Commodore Mahmud Hussain told The Daily Star.
Initially, the government had planned to build the airport in Trishal upazila of Mymenshigh and later decided in principle to build it in greater Faridpur.
Contacted, a government high official involved in selecting the site, said, “We took into consideration Trishal and both banks of the Padma to find a suitable place.” A team led by the civil aviation and tourism secretary visited Bhanga upazila in Faridpur and Arial Beel last month.
“Finally, we have selected Arial Beel as there is no human habitation here,” he said, requesting anonymity.
“If we go for Bhanga or Trishal, we have to relocate many people since there are human habitations there. But this location (Arial Beel) is suitable because it is just wetland, and only one crop (a year) is grown there,” he added.
The move has triggered resentment among locals who apprehend their lands will be acquired at low prices. They staged demonstrations in the three upazilas in the last few days.
But there are also others who welcomed the move believing that building the airport will create jobs and develop the area.
“You will always find such protests whenever the government wants to do some development activities,” the official said.
Arial Beel is a very old wetland stretching over 25,000 acres, home to many local bird species, which was also mentioned in documents of the British era. The name Arial Beel is found in the first Dhaka Gazetteer of James Taylor in early 19th century.
Asked about the importance of Arial Beel from environmental aspects, renowned bird expert Enam ul Haque said the wetland is home to many rare species.
“We have already destroyed all habitats of our local duck. Arial Beel is the only known breeding ground for spot-billed duck,” he said.
Besides, it is the lone breeding ground for common moorhen, purple swamp hen, water cock (Kora) and a small number of surviving Rufous-rumped grass bird in Dhaka Division, Enam mentioned.
An inhabitant of Alampur in Sreenagar, Mohsin Alam, said over three lakh people are directly or indirectly dependent on the beel for their livelihood.
Ruhul Amin of Nagorik Uddyog Sreenagar upazila unit said over 40,000 tonnes of rice are produced annually from the lands in Arial Beel, and people of the area catch fish worth Tk 50-60 crore and collect oyster worth over Tk 20 crore a year from the beel.
Land Acquisition Office of Munshiganj Abdul Latif Khan had earlier told The Daily Star that the process of acquiring land for the airport was going on in full swing. Notices in this regard would be issued in three phases, and proper compensation given to those affected.
The civil aviation and tourism ministry approved the land acquisition on December 20.
When asked, Civil Aviation and Tourism Minister GM Quader said he is not in a position to talk on this now.
“I shall give details on the airport at an appropriate time,” he added.
While visiting a number of villages in Sreenagar, Nawbabganj and Dohar, this correspondent was told by locals that they would launch a tougher agitation demanding that the proposed airport be shifted elsewhere.
“We shall do everything to protect our land, and to stop building the airport here,” said Mujibur Rahman, an elderly farmer from Munshinagar in Nawbabganj.
This has become a much-talked-about issue everywhere in the areas — houses, shops, markets, educational institutions and even in mosques. And announcements about agitation programmes were being made over microphones.
Shahjahan Badal, convener of Arial Beel Rakkha Committee, said, “We have no alternative but to protect our land. Our survival depends on Arial Beel. ”
“On Monday, we gave an ultimatum to the authorities to change the decision (about the proposed airport site) within seven days. We will go for tougher programmes if it is not done,” he added.