The fate of Sreehatta economic zone is hanging in the balance because of the legal complexities over land acquisition.
Such uncertainty has resulted in an unofficial halt in the development work of the country's first zone in the northern region.
Though officials are optimistic about readying the industrial zone within the stipulated time, locals and utility service providers were found sceptical about the timely implementation of the site where over 68 per cent land is privately-owned.
During a recent visit to the zone located at Sherpur in Moulavibazar, which is 40 kilometres away from the Sylhet city and 208 kms off Dhaka, it was found that the land development work had been suspended. Even the office of the land developer was also found under lock and key.
DBL Group, Palmal Group, Greatwall and Abdul Monem Group were developing 240 acres of land in the zone while the remaining part will be used for power station.
Initially, the zone was supposed to be built at Chunarughat in Habiganj district. In the face of protest by local people, the BEZA backtracked and moved to Sherpur.
But the outcome remains almost the same as many people engaged with the work faced legal action and even arrests.
Talking to the FE, locals said the development activities in the zone have remained suspended for the last few months.
Factors like the presence of fake land owners, mismatch in the price of land, and inadequate compensation angered local villagers who filed a number of cases with the court, which caused delay to the zone development.
Akmal Hossain, who has six kiers of land (One kier equals to 30 decimal) in Sherpur Mouza of the zone, said he received only Tk 4.5 million (Tk 45 lakh) for three kiers last year.
"But I haven't got the remaining part yet. So, I filed a case with the court. I'm not alone, many people filed cases because some groups took away money showing fake documents," he added.
Muchon Mia, who has 118 decimal of land in the same Mouza, said a group of people had taken away the money of his land when he was abroad.
"On information, I came back and got back the amount after putting pressure on them. I got back the money because I have some influence here. But many people don't have that kind of influence," he said.
To fight off such malpractices, the land owners formed a platform named Affected Sreehatta Economic Zone Land Owners Association and collected money from its members to finance the legal battle.
Ajay Acharjee, secretary of the association, was critical of the way land prices were fixed, saying that land in the same jurisdiction has two different prices.
The price of one decimal of land in Brammon Gram Mouza is Tk 0.27 million (Tk 2,70,000), while the rate in Sherpur Mouza, which is close to the highways, is Tk 51,000.
"Before the economic zone, buyers were offering me nearly Tk 0.2 million a decimal. This is not justified," he said.
Contacted, land acquisition officer in Moulavibazar deputy commissioner's (DC) office Masud Parvez refuted the allegation of price distortion and the existence of fake land owners.
He said the land price was fixed in accordance with the law and the compensation was distributed to the land owners after verifying their documents.
The land acquisition wing has so far disbursed Tk 2.53 billion out of Tk 2.92 billion as compensation to the land owners at the end of March 28, 2018. The office is also dealing with a total of 150 cases filed by the locals.
"Everything is fine here. We completed the land acquisition and we'll move for mutation very soon," Mr. Parvez said.
Assistant Commissioner (Land) of Moulavibazar Sadar Upazila AHM Ariful Islam said the economic zone had a total of 352.12 acres of land, of which 239.87 acres were privately-owned and the residual portions were owned by the government.
Preferring anonymity, another official at the DC office said that the future progress of the zone largely depends on how fast the land disputes are settled. "Realising the fact, BEZA officials have stopped visiting the place in the last few months," the official said.
Seeing the slow progress due to the legal complexities, Bangladesh Rural Electrification Board (REB) has scaled back the development work for a 10-megawatt power station to supply power there.
Deputy General Manager of Moulavibazar REB zone Zakir Hossain said the board finished almost 30 kilometre-long 33kv transmission lines from Moulavibazar and land development for the sub-station was also finished.
"Substitution work is going on. Only our work in the whole zone is visible. The power will be supplied from Sreemangal power source. What will we do after finishing the work if the zone is not ready? I think we can finish it in three months," he added.
Contacted, BEZA executive chairman Paban Chowdhury acknowledged the authorities faced difficulties in advancing the land development work involving Tk 120 million.
The land developer often suspends work due to various reasons, he said without elaborating.
He said the government had 112 acres of low land to the site and asked the developer to use the area and fill it up. "I think, the problem will be resolved and the development work will start soon."
In terms of rail connectivity, the zone is well-located because it lies beside the Dhaka-Sylhet Rail link, a busiest rail track for passenger and freight transport and the distance from the Sreemangal railway junction is only 35 kms.
But the port connectivity remains an issue. The zone is 100 kilometres away from Tamabil Land Port while 362 kilometres from the Chattagram Port, which should raise concern for the businesses.