AS ALL was being readied for the observance of Shaheed Dibas, which marks February 21, 1952, the language movement that set out people’s journey towards their independence in 1971, in a business district of Old Town called Chawk Bazar in Dhaka, a building caught fire.
Small fires hardly go noticed. But the fire breaking out in Old Town is something else, something to be dreaded, rather. We have already had the experience of a big fire in recent time that broke out at a building at Nimtali, in Old Town, at night on June 3, 2010.
The 2010 fire, fanned by chemical and inflammable products which were stored in shops in the residential area, burnt eight buildings and at least 20 shops. The disaster left at least 124 people, mostly women and children, dead — 117 on the spot and the rest died from their burn injuries while being treated in hospital. Two hundred others survived with severe injuries.
The very sight of the fire at Chawk Bazar that broke out about quarter to 11 at night on February 20 was, therefore, enough to ring the alarm bell. As the nation was paying paying tribute to the heroes of the language movement, with the national programme taking place at the Central Shaheed Minar, the emergency ward of Dhaka Medical College Hospital, which is just beside the Shaheed Minar, looked desolate. No one could even think that it would no longer so remain in a couple of hours.
Fire fighters reached the place, with television tickers reporting an increased number of fire engines working to put out the flames by the hour — 10, 15, 32, 36, 37 and, even, 40. No figure that the television channels were giving could be true specific to the time. But it was enough to flag that the fire was big or, at least, growing.
Just after the fire had begun, one television channel was saying that one building caught fire while others were saying that the fire spread to another building. Some channels were reporting injuries of about 50 people while some others were reporting the number of the injured to be 30. It was hectic in newsrooms to cover two big incidents at the same time, but it was the most hectic time for the fire fighters — they had worked at a stretch for about 12 hours to contain the fire. Yet the fire was reported to be burning even after that and the explosion of one or two chemical cans were reported in the afternoon of Thursday.
When the fire fighters called off their operation in the evening on Thursday, 78 people are reported to have been killed, with fears that the number could be rising. The figure somewhat, however, settled at 67 in the evening on Friday. The fire could originate, as fire fighters said, from the explosion of a gas cylinder or an electric transformer. Five committees, by the home affairs ministry, the Fire Service and Civil Defence, city authorities, explosives department and the National Human Rights Commission were set up to investigate the fire and establish the reason for the fire.
Everyone concerned has offered condolences on the death and expressed shock and grief. Families who lost their members and the families who have their members wounded in the incident would be given certain amount of money.
But a few issues came up through the reporting of television channels that the authorities concerned must ponder over. We first came to know that it was a cylinder explosion, which had been in the news until the fire fighters called off the operation. But it could also be the explosion of an electric transformer, as we came to know after the operation had ended.
Witness to the Chawk Bazar fire say that a gas cylinder of a pick-up van exploded and the fire rapidly caught a restaurant which used gas cylinders and a couple of cars parked close by. There are authorities who would need to explain the issue. Cylinder explosions are nothing new; they keep taking place, often killing people and making the headlines, creating a furore about the negligence of the authorities about ensuring that the cylinders are properly examined to see if the shelf life of the cylinders does match the production-time guarantee. A transformer went off, as was reported; the electric supply maintenance authorities should have something to say, regarding timely inspection and examination, or the installation of the transformer too close to probable fire sources.
We came to know from reporters repeatedly reporting that the roads are narrow, there was a severe traffic congestion; a few cars reduced to skeletons still stood testimony to the proposition. Reporters even feared that some may have been stampeded to death when the fire broke out. City authorities, traffic police officials and authorities overseeing public works and roads all should have their failures to explain about a proper road and traffic management. The building authorities need to explain why they have allowed buildings to spring up especially in the place and generally all over the city without having demanded proper fire-fighting mechanism and fire- escapes from building owners.
A few of the reporters said that a mini-shopping mall, with eateries, on the ground floor of a building was burnt. Why should there be a shopping mall in a residential building? The case in point might require a few of the authorities to answer. Authorities looking after the state’s commerce, after the city’s development and city authorities could probably be the first of the candidates.
There is, besides, no doubting that at least one of the houses that burned had factories and shops that dealt with and traded in chemical and inflammable products. Reporters quoting fire fighters on Thursday explained the afternoon’s explosion saying that one or two cans of chemicals went off as the floor remained heated.
A few of the authorities again together might explain why such factories and shops were allowed in the residential buildings. We all know, even while the fire was burning, that the factories traded in spurious goods made of chemicals. This bit of information pits in a couple of more authorities into the situation. It beasts logic, and not a surprise through, how a couple of factories of spurious products could run for long in a residential building having no fire-fighting mechanism. There are laws against dealing with and trading in spurious products unlawfully and illegally.
Raids are often held, people are held to account, and such factories are sealed. Nothing of this sort happened here in this case. The industries ministry late at night on Thursday, however, sought to say that there was no chemical warehouse in the buildings. The industries ministry keeps an account of all legal entities. There is, perhaps, no harm for the industries ministry in not keeping an account of all illegal entities. But there is harm if other agencies who must know did not.
There is the greed — as well as indifference, if not ignorance — of building owners that let people trading in chemicals rent the floors to set up factories. There is the indifference of tenants who having known that there are chemical shops and warehouses in the building have never lodged any protest. At least, we do not know of any such protests.
There are failures on part of the associations of traders who deal in chemicals, inflammable products, paints, sprays, perfumes and all. They seek to say that they are ready to relocate to Keraniganj where the government, after the 2010 fire at Nimtali, planned to build a chemical park, the way it set up a leather industry estate at Savar for the Hazaribagh tanneries. But the associations in the past are reported to have gone on strike in protest at the move for the relocation of their shops, warehouses and factories.
Journalists had their failure, too. The furore that rose in a rage after the Nimtali fire died down soon. Not many journalists have for nine years ever spoken loudly of the situation and the government’s indifference to the issue and inaction about it. This is also a collective failure of the citizens. After the Nimtali devastation, civic groups could not be loud enough to make things happen.
The city authorities, which have suspended the renewal of licences for about 1,900 chemical shops and warehouses since 2013, had started renewing the licences a day before the Chawk Bazar fire broke out. It took the authorities three years to suspend the licence renewal after the Nimtali fire, with an aim to relocate the chemical shops and warehouses; and the authorities appear to have given in to the pressure of the shop and warehouse owners.
The government, as well as all its agencies involved in various ways in the process, knows fully well that chemical shops and warehouses were an added risk to Old Town fires, because the buildings, with no fire-fighting mechanisms and no fire escapes, stand almost kissing one another, the roads are too narrow for fire engines to move in and electric supply lines and transformers, in some cases, are at arm’s length from some buildings.
Yet, the government could make no effective move in the past nine years for the relocation of chemical shops and warehouses. Their relocation certainly provides for no guarantee that there would be no fire, but with the shops and warehouses being relocated, the chances for greater damage are less.
In the budget for the past financial year, Tk 2.01 billion was set aside for a project that will set up the chemical part at Keraniganj, but that too only for 936 entities. About a half of the factories and warehouses that have their licences suspended could be relocated. There is the other half for the government to deal with and there are the illegal shops, warehouses and factories that the government perhaps does not know of. The project, which has failed to make any headway as the district administration has yet to acquire the required 50 acres of land at Keraniganj, is planned to be completed by 2021.
Being sceptical of the project completion by the deadline would be nothing short of changing what word ‘sceptical’ defines. Investigations might come up with many other propositions not still explicit, they might come up with some propositions not still thought of, yet what still stands is that the Chawk Bazar fire, especially with the Nimtai devastation before us, has resulted from a collective failure that we have not been able to attend to. All agencies and all quarters apparently responsible for the fire at hand would try to wash their hands of it and would trade blame. But nothing that has happened will change and everything that happened will point finger at the collective failure that we need to resolve collectively.
Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.
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