Bangladesh: Proposed International Airport Stumbles Over Environment Controversy

This is the first of the two part series on the debate in Bangla blogosphere over the protests against the proposed international airport at Arial Beel, a low-lying vast wetland in the middle of Bangladesh.

In August 2010, the government of Bangladesh endorsed an ambitious infrastructure project, namely the construction of a new, modern, world-class International airport. A Public-Private Partnership (PPP) venture, the initial cost of the project was estimated at Tk. 500 billion. The land required for the project was estimated to be around 6000 acres.

A beel at Tangail. Image by P. K. Niyogi. Courtesy Wikimedia.

Initially, three possible sites were explored — two in Madhupur of Tangail and one in Mymensingh's Trishal — with Trishal emerging as the favorable choice. However, on realising that in Trishal the task would be to displace/relocate a large number of people, the government, fearing resistance, changed its mind and without conducting any sort of feasibility study or environment impact assessment, earmarked the low-lying vast wetland Arial Beel (currently the 3rd largest beel in Bangladesh which stretches across parts of Sreenagar of Munshiganj, and Dohar and Nawabganj of Dhaka) situated 6km south of Dhaka city, as its chosen location. Interestingly, by then the proposed project had grown from an airport to include a satellite city as well, bringing up the land requirement from the erstwhile 6000 acres to 25000 acres. (See some pictures of Areal Beel by Lonely Traveler).

The Controversy

No sooner had the project been announced, heated debates erupted among citizens in those localities. Many feared displacement and offered stiff resistance to the government’s decision and willingness to sacrifice the wetlands in its quest to build a shining new airport and city. Environmental activists pointed out that the move to erase the wetlands would severely impact both environment as well as livlihoods of the local people living in the beel area. There were concerns that the government had finalised the location based on land survey records that were over 100 years old, without taking into account a) the changes that have come about over time in terms of habitations, land usage and overall terrain of the land and b) the critical role played by wetlands in recharging the groundwater resources.

However, there were others who welcomed the initiative, hoping that the project will usher in employment opportunities and overall development of the area concerned. Apart from local residents, there was also excitement about the project among a section of non-resident Bangladeshis. After all, the project promised a world-class airport and city, an IT hub, a textile hub and many other such initiatives and a new expressway and monorail system that would connect the airport with Dhaka city. The Minister of Urban Development, Mr. Abdul Mannan Khan claimed that once the project was underway, the current legal landowners would get 5-10 kathas of land in the project area which would then be as valuable as a diamond mine – much higher than its current yield value. He stated that the people could not even imagine how their standard of living would leapfrog once the project materialised.

Protests against the proposed international airport at Arial Beel. Image courtesy Click on the image for more.

Both groups (for and against the proposed project on Arial Beel) began to get organised. Soon however, the issue got politicised, with the leading opposition party, the BNP, joining hands with the protesters and raising the volume of the protests and agitations to thwart the proposed land acquisition. The unrest soon spread and when the government tried to use the police force to control the protests, violence erupted in the area which left 1 policeman dead and over 100 injured.

The Online Debate

The protection versus land acquisition debate quickly spread online and fuelled the blogosphere. Bloggers reacted to various points associated with the issue.

For those OPPOSING the project, their arguments were mainly two-fold: a) the ecological importance of preserving the Arial Beel and b) questioning whether a new airport was indeed required at this time. In this post, we look at the ecological arguments advanced by bloggers in voicing their opposition to the project.

Arial Beel – A critical ecosystem that sustains biodiversity & livlihoods

In the International Conference on the Commons at IASC 2011 in Hyderabad, India, a global community came together to reaffirm the importance of conserving and protecting the world's water resources. Their concerns were reflected among the Bangla bloggers who put forth strong arguments for protecting the Arial Beel.

A.B.M Mohsin at Amarblog writes[bn]:

এমনিতেই জলবায়ুর বিরূপ প্রভাব আর মানুষের অপরিকল্পিত বাঁধ এদেশের জলাভূমিকে ধ্বংসের কিনারে নিয়ে এসেছে। এর সাথে যদি এমন অযাচিত অধিগ্রহণের মত ঘটনা চলতে থাকে তবে জীববৈচিত্র্যে ভরপুর আর ছোট মাছের প্রাকৃতিক প্রজননভূমি এই আড়িয়াল বিলের মত ধীরে ধীরে সব জলজসম্পদ ধ্বংস হয়ে যাবে।

As it is, climate change and haphazard construction of large dams have brought our waterbodies and wetlands to the brink of extinction. On top of that if instances of such unwarranted land acquision goes on then wetlands such as Arial beel, which is rich in biodiversity and the natural breeding ground of varieties of small fish, will be lost forever.

In an open letter to the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, blogger Tanvir Rabbani at Sachalayatan, points out[bn]:

মাননীয় প্রধান মন্ত্রী…আপনার পরিকল্পনা কমিটির কেউ কি জানেন না যে বিলটি প্রতিবছর বন্যায় ১৫-২৫ ফুট পানিতে তলিয়ে যায় এবং এই এলাকার মাটিতে পিট কয়লার গভীর স্তর আছে যা বিমান বন্দর সহ যেকোন ভারী স্থাপনার জন্যেই হুমকিস্বরুপ?

[…]মাননীয় প্রধান মন্ত্রী, আপনি হয়ত জানেন তবু আরেকবার বলি; আপনাদের অধিগ্রহন করতে চাওয়া আড়িয়াল বিলের ২৫,০০০ একর জমি থেকে বর্তমানে ৪০,০০০ মেট্রিক টন ধান (প্রায়),১০,০০০ মেট্রিক রবিশস্য (প্রায়) , ৭০০ মেট্রক টন মাছ (প্রায়) উৎপাদিত হয় এবং এই জমি অধিগ্রহন করলে স্থানীয় বেকারত্বের সংখ্যা দাঁড়াবে ১১ লক্ষ।জমি অধিগ্রহনের পর কিভাবে পূরন করবেন এই খাদ্যশষ্যের ঘাটতি? তার চেয়ে বড়কথা কোথায় যাবে এই মানুষগুলো?কি হবে তাদের বাসস্থান,জীবিকা কিংবা স্বপ্নের? জানি আপনারা জানেননা, আর জানেনা বলেই তারা আজ পথে নেমে এসেছে।প্রতিরোধের দেয়াল বানিয়ে সেখানে রক্তের ছোপে লিখে দিয়েছে “আড়িয়াল বিল শাসকের নয়, এই বিল বিলমানুষদের”।

Dear Prime Minister…don't the members of your planning committe know that every year during heavy monsoons the beel gets flooded and submerged under 15-25ft of water and that in this region there is a peat mine below the surface that will prove to be a great danger to any heavy over-the-ground structure such as an airport?[…] Dear Prime Minister, maybe you are already aware of this but let me reiterate, the 25,000 acres of Arial Beel that you propose to take over, yields about 40,000metric tonnes of rice, about 10,000metric tonnes of rabi crops, about 700 metric tonnes of fish and after the takeover, the number of locals unemployed will grow to be around 11lakhs. How will you make up for this food deficit? More importantly, where will these people go? What will be the future of their shelters, livilihoods and dreams? I know you have not given it thought and have no answers and that is why these people are on the roads today, protesting, creating a wall of resistance and writing with their blood that Arial Beel belongs to the local communities and not to the rulers”

On his blog at Somewherein, blogger Roder Chele wonders how the government could override its own National Water Policy which lays down specific conservation rules restricting landfill of natural waterbodies such as the Arial Beel. Pointing out (through pictures) to the difference in the class of people campaigning for and against the Beel, the blogger concludes that the ordinary, local people are all resisting the project while a section of the elites were campaigning for the project. He writes[bn]:

আড়িয়াল বিল হচ্ছে বাংলাদেশে পরিকল্পিত চাষাবাদের অন্যতম বিল। এখানে সেচের সমস্যা নেই। পুরো বিলে আছে পর্যাপ্ত ডেঙ্গা (বড় পুকুর)। যেখানে মাছ এবং ফসলের চাষে পানির যোগান হয় সমান তালে। মাটির যে উৎপাদন উত্তেজনা, কৃষকের শৃঙ্গারে তার ষোলআনা উসুল হয় এখানে। আড়িয়াল বিলের চেহারা আর বাংলাদেশের চেহারা একই রকম। আমরা সবুজের আধুনিকায়ন লাল দিয়ে করতে চাই না। সবুজ আরো সবুজ হবে, বিস্তৃত সবুজ। মাটির গায়ে মার্বেল পাথর দিয়ে আমাদের মাটিসভ্যতা ধর্ষন করতে চাই না। এ মাটি পরিত্যক্ত নয়, এ মাটি অহেতুক নয়। এ মাটিতে ফসল এবং শ্রমের যে সংগম, তা অভূতপূর্ব।

The Arial Beel is a boon for agriculture. There is no scarcity of water for irrigation here. The entire Beel area has many large waterbodies which supply water to the fields all the year round. The excitement of a good yield is ever visible among farmers here. Arial Beel is a symbol of the agrarian Bangladesh. We do not want a development that converts our greens into reds. We want more greens (agriculture, reviving of abundant natural resources). We do not want to hide our earth with slabs of marble. This is not wasteland. This is not empty land. On this land there is an unparalleled confluence of effort and rich yields, of sustainable livlihoods.

Many other bloggers too are discussing how the government could bulldoze over their own National Water Policy, opining that this shows that the government is not serious about conservation and protection.

This post concludes in another part. To read more about the ‘Airport versus Arial Beel’ online debate, please look out for part 2 of this series, coming soon.

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