Thousands of Bangladeshis live in a deathtrap

Updated February 23, 2019

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After the devastating fire that broke out on Wednesday night and left about 80 people dead, one of the busiest roads in Old Dhaka looks like an empty horror place. — AP
After the devastating fire that broke out on Wednesday night and left about 80 people dead, one of the busiest roads in Old Dhaka looks like an empty horror place. — AP

Ramim was happily going to a dinner along with his father, mother and younger brother near Chawkbazar when the fire broke out at a chemical warehouse in the area of Old Dhaka. They were travelling in a rickshaw that came to a halt in front of Hazi Waheed Mansion at about 10:30pm because of a traffic gridlock in the Churirhatta lane.

When an explosion took place, Ramim managed to jump off the rickshaw and escape the devastating fire with six per cent burns. The child, however, lost his father Rashidul Islam, 39, mother Sonia Islam, 31, and his little brother Maheer, four. His father’s body was found in an embrace with Maheer’s body. His parents’ and brother’s bodies were later taken to the morgue of Dhaka Medical College Hospital.

After the devastating fire that broke out on Wednesday night and left about 80 people dead, one of the busiest roads in Old Dhaka looks like an empty horror place. Millions of people around the country watched the tragedy unfold on their television screens late on Wednesday and Thursday.

The blaze not only killed people living in the Waheed Mansion, where it started, but also took the lives of passers-by, shopkeepers, rickshaw pullers, drivers, patients and doctors.

According to official sources, a total of 81 people lost their lives and 41 others got injured. Of those killed in the incident, 70 were men, seven women and four children. However, relatives of missing people were visiting the morgue on Friday in search of their loved ones.

An investigating team of the Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) told a press briefing on Friday that there was a lot of combustible material and chemicals stored inside the Waheed Mansion. A director of Fire Service and Civil Defence, Lt Col S.M. Zulfiqar Rahman, said to the media: “The fire fuelled by chemicals generated extreme heat and spread quickly throughout the neighbourhood.”

“The first and second floors of the Waheed Mansion, a building gutted by the fire, have been severely damaged. A week of thorough investigations will reveal whether the structure needs to be demolished or not. Other affected buildings are more or less structurally intact. Buildings putting public safety at risk will be marked with warnings,” said DSCC chief engineer Rejaul Karim. Thirty-seven units from 31 stations of the fire service toiled for around 15 hours to put out the devastating fire.

‘Deathtrap’

Experts are pointing out how thousands of people have been living in a deathtrap due to the negligence of government and lack of awareness among residents of Old Dhaka.

According to the fire service sources, there are more than 1,000 chemical factories and warehouses in Dhaka city. Of them, 850 are illegal.

Urban Planner and Architect Iqbal Habib claimed that thousands of Old Dhaka residents lived close to grave danger as many warehouses there stored inflammable substances and industrial units that violated environment rules were run illegally.

“There are many chemical warehouses and stores located in residential buildings in Chawkbazar, Siddique Bazar, Islambagh, Babubazar, Armanitola, Nabab Katra, Moghultuli, Bangshal, Sat Rowza and Mitford areas of Old Dhaka. Thousands of small and big industrial units have been set up in those residential buildings. Many of them use highly flammable substances. The residences are also used as stores of combustible material,” said Mr Habib.

Citing an example of the old city of Singapore and sharing experiences of the Nimtoli fire tragedy that took place in 2010, he said: “The Revised Detail Area Plan has described Old Dhaka as one of the most vulnerable areas for living, and how de-densification can make this old city liveable after relocation of small and big chemical industries.”

Relocation in limbo

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has instructed the authorities concerned to relocate and remove all the chemical factories and warehouses from Old Dhaka. However, no deadline has been mentioned to start the relocation work.

Arif Hossain, the general secretary of Bangladesh Chemical and Perfumery Association, said that any action against it would harm the industry as well as the people who were involved directly or indirectly with the business.

Fahmida Amin, a resident of Lalbag, said it would be great if the chemical and plastic factories got relocated. “I have seen in the news that government is relocating them, but I have doubts. I am a local here. We have been living in these congested buildings and narrow lanes for generations.

“The Nimtoli fire left us speechless. And now the tragedy has happened again.”

DSCC Mayor Sayeed Khokon had said a drive would be carried out against warehouses and factories dealing in 20 types of hazardous chemicals from March 1.

In April 2011, the government decided to shift all chemical warehouses from residential areas to industrial zones in Keraniganj or Kamrangir Char. The project, called “Chemical Shilpa Nagar”, is yet to begin but is scheduled to end in June 2021.

“It does not take nine years to do so, if there is the will of government. They try to find a solution in compensation, not in protection and prevention.

“When we saw that 124 people had lost their lives in Nimtoli tragedy and the reason was chemical storage and plastic factories in residential buildings, we failed to learn from that,” said Mr Habib.

The Bangladesh Environment Conservation Rules 1997 identify 69 chemicals that fall under the “red category” of hazardous substances and says: “Industrial units have to be located in industrial zones or vacant places, or areas with concentration of industries.

“A manufacturer, importer or a distributor can face up to 10 years’ imprisonment or a fine of $11,900 or both for violating the rules.

“If a person trades, transports and stores these substances in violation of the rules, he or she can be fined $119 or imprisoned for six months or both.”

Published in Dawn, February 23rd, 2019