Where protector is predator: 87 century-old timber trees sold

century old treeEighty-seven century old timber trees valued at about Tk five crore on the Chuadanga-Meherpur highway have been sold out to a local BNP leader at only Tk 51 lakh. The buyer is now felling the trees ignoring protests by local people and leaders of political parties including Awami League, Jamaat-e-Islami, and, also BNP. The political leaders have demanded probe into the matter. This correspondent during a visit to the area on Saturday saw about 100 labourers felling the trees with electric saws and taking away the logs by about 20 trucks. The Meherpur Zila Parishad sold the trees to Meherpur Sadar BNP General Secretary Saiful Islam. To give the process a legal cover, bidding was done, albeit with alleged irregularities, sources claimed.

A ruling party lawmaker from Meherpur was also allegedly involved in the process by getting it approved by the ministry concerned, highly placed sources in the district administration told this correspondent. The 87 trees are among 170 on the 128 kilometers Meherpur-Chuadanga highway. The trees are looked after by the Roads and Highway Department (RHD). Meherpur district administration took decision to sell 87 of the tress and wrote to the Zila Parishad to arrange a bidding. But RHD claimed ownership of the tress and wrote to the district administration not to sell those without its consent. On the other hand, the Zila Parishad also claimed ownership of the tress. To resolve the dispute between RHD and Zila Parishad, district administration called a meeting of District Development Committee on May 11. The meeting vested ownership of the trees to the Zila Parishad and approved sale of 87 tree out of 170. The meeting was presided over by Meherpur Deputy Commissioner (DC) Nurunnabi Talukdar. No representative of RHD attended the meeting following alleged threats from local ruling party men, the sources said.

On the following day, the Zila Parishad gave an advertisement in two Dhaka-based dailies, seeking for bids for purchase of the trees. The advertisement was published in city editions of the dailies. So, only the people involved in the process knew it, keeping other prospective buyers in the district in the dark, the sources claimed. Only three tenders were dropped, one by Saiful and two others by 'his men', the sources claimed. The Zila Parishad on June 5 accepted Saiful's bid which quoted the price of 87 tress at Tk 51 lakh. The two other bids quoted the prices at Tk 48.20 lakh and Tk 47 lakh. Immediately after acceptance of his bid, Saiful engaged a large number of labourers to fell the trees. The sources claimed that over 14, 83,800 cubic feet of valuable timber would be available from the 87 trees, market price of which is about Tk five crore. When contacted on Sunday, Saiful denied any wrongdoing in the process. "They floated tender and I submitted a bid. My bid was accepted and I bought the trees", he said.

The bids were opened at the District Council office in presence of officials and Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) personnel, he said. "I may have to incur loss in selling the timber as many of the trees have deep holes because those are very old", he further claimed. Capt. Arif of Kushtia Rab said a team headed by him was present when the bids were opened. When contacted over cell phone, Meherpur Nurunnabi Talukdar told this correspondent, "We informed the matter to the Local Government Ministry and it allowed the Zila Parishad to sell the tress". The committee then approved the sale, he said. R&H Sub-assistant engineer Liaqat ali filed a case with Meherpur Sadar thana against the sale but police did not take any action. When contacted, ruling party lawmaker Masud Arun said, "Those trees are very old. We want to plant saplings and bring about a green revolution in the area". Some Kushtia-based newspapers also published reports on the matter, which drew the attention of political leaders. Protesting the sale, former lawmaker from the area Prof Abdul Mannan held a rally in the area on July 1, 2005.

Jatiya Party leader and Meherpur Municipal Chairman Motasim Billa talking on the issue said, "What can we do if the protector becomes the predator. BNP leaders are supposed to protect the trees but they are destroying those" Meherpur BNP Vice-president Alamgir Alam Chhatu said, "BNP will have to bear the burden of what the party lawmaker has done" Amjhupi Union Parishad Chairman and BNP leader Borhan Uddin Chunu also protested the sale of the big old trees. They have demanded proper into the matter. A top Jamaat leader in the district said over cell phone, "I strongly protest the incident" (Chuadanga Kushtia: Amamur Aman, Daily Star, July 26, 2005).

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