During mass development in an urban area, the monetary cost is always disclosed. But what about the environmental cost, which is more valuable than money?
Sylhet, a relatively small city of 26.50 square kilometres, gives a glimpse into the reality. Once referred to as a green city, Sylhet is riding on a development spree in the last decade.
Thanks to the city corporation’s unplanned urbanisation and no environmental conservation plan, the city is rapidly losing its green cover.
According to data given by the Sylhet City Corporation (SCC), they felled 263 trees in last five years since 2016; while the data of the Forest Department, the permitting authority for felling trees, shows that the corporation felled another 69 trees by this time.
However, a data analysis between Google Street View of 2015 and field visit to assess the present situation, The Daily Star found that the corporation felled at least 873 trees while implementing seven development projects, mostly road widening.
A few years ago, the Rikabibazar-Subidbazar road via Mirer Maidan used to be covered with trees planted on both sides of the road. It also helped Sylhet Municipality win the award of best institutional tree planter on World Environment Day 1999.
But in 2015 and 2016, all trees of the road, no less than 200, were felled to expand it into two lanes with a concrete divider shaped as “wood log” with flowering trees in them.
Though the road, being referred to as “Tree Lane”, now looks spectacular when the red and yellow flowers of Krishnachura (Delonix regia) and Radhachura (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) bloom, the cool breeze and shade from the green cover are gone forever.
Like the road, the one next to Kazi Jalal Uddin Girls High School at Kumarpara was also expanded recently, at a cost of a razed hillock and at least 70 trees.
However, SCC and Forest Department in their given data shows only 2 trees were felled.
Visiting all the areas in the city where trees were felled, collecting present data and comparing them with Google Street View of 2015, this correspondent found a notable mismatch between the actual numbers of felled trees with the provided data of the authorities.
At least 68 more trees were found to be felled at Kazi Jalal Uddin School Adjacent road in Kumarpara; 51 at Amberkhana Primary School to Tilagarh road; 36 at Kumarpara Christian Tila to Shahi Eidgah road; 30 at Kean Bridge to Humayun Rashid Chattar road; 27 at Amberkhana to Chowkidekhi road; 25 at Mirer Maidan road; 13 at Bangabir road; 11 at Hazrat Shajalal (R) Shrine’s Western Side to Osmani School road; 5 each at PDB Mosque to Nabab Road’s end and Bakhtiar Bibi Primary School premises in Mirabazar.
Moreover, though SCC or Forest Department didn’t provide any data, this newspaper found more trees were felled in other areas as well.
For example, 96 were felled at Amberkhana to Bandarbazar road via Chowhatta and Zindabazar; 77 at Subidbazar to Madina Market road; 58 at Zindabazar to Tilagarh road via Naiorpul and 39 at Chowhatta to Kumarpara road.
According to the SCC data, they have called for open tender to sell the felled trees and sold 263 for Tk 2,21,050. The market price, however, is way more than that.
Abdul Karim Kim, general secretary of Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon (Bapa) in Sylhet, said, “There will always be a mismatch in the count of felled trees, as the authorities keep tally of only those with timber value.”
“The green cover relies on all trees, even the saplings. But they [authorities] mercilessly chop all trees in their path,” he said.
The city corporation could’ve avoided felling that many trees unnecessarily if the projects were properly planned, he added.
Tree felling by the corporation for development projects is being criticised by citizens for years.
On November 19 last year, Bhoomishontan Bangladesh, an environmental rights organisation in Sylhet, held a human chain in front of Sylhet Central Saheed Minar in this regard.
SCC Mayor Ariful Haque Choudhury barged into the event, took responsibility of the “irresponsible” works, and assured protestors that no more trees will be felled without proper reasons and consultation of experts.
SM Sazzad Hossain, divisional forest officer in Sylhet, said, “Naturally when the city corporation seeks permission to fell trees, we survey the spot and match with the layout of the project. Once satisfied, we permit them only to fell trees, necessary for the project.”
“But we don’t keep following on how many trees are actually felled as the city corporation is a responsible authority. But we’ll be more cautious in future,” he said.
Asked, Mayor Ariful Haque said, “We understand that some irresponsible works have been done by cutting trees unnecessarily during development works. But we’ve already started recovering our greenery and will start a green campaign in the coming rainy season.”
“We’ve already consulted with experts about suitable trees for urban greenery and will act on their suggestions. We’ve also appointed two gardeners to take care of the trees,” he said.
The city corporation has planted 2,080 trees in the last five years, according to the given data.
Among the trees, 750 are for beautification, planted in road dividers. Around 1,030 trees were distributed to be planted at religious institutions, 200 were planted at the truck terminal in Dakshin Surma and 100 at a water treatment plant in Kushighat.
SCC has also started procurement of 9,000 plants to be planted in the next rainy season, they stated in the given data.
However, Ashraful Kabir, coordinator of Bhoomishontan Bangladesh, said, “The city corporation always plans for environmental conservation exaggeratedly, but their outcome fails due to lack of monitoring.”
“Early last year, they formed a ‘green committee’ along with concerned citizens to decide about urban afforestation, but the committee so far held only one meeting.”
“It’s crucial to involve people in environmental conservation. Hiring a few gardeners will never be enough to protect the planted trees,” he added.
Contacted, Prof Nazrul Islam, chairman of Centre for Urban Studies, said, “Sylhet has the landscape of becoming a perfectly planned city with a greener vibe as it has river, green cover and hillocks by the town.”
“A decade ago, Urban Development Directorate designed a masterplan for the city, but that’s never been followed and the projects are being undertaken as per authorities’ whim without considering the environmental aspect,” he said.
Nazrul Islam, also the president of Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, said, “Trees can be felled, only if extremely necessary. But that must be done in a planned way so that the greenery is recovered.”
There’s no meaning of destroying the natural beauty of a city like Sylhet. All the authorities must work together to build a planned city that’s green and has access to fresh water.”