THE fire that broke out at Chawk Bazar in the densely populated Old Town of Dhaka on Wednesday night, leaving at least 67 dead and scores others wounded with severe burn injuries is shocking. The fire till now presumed to have originated from the explosion of the compressed natural gas cylinder of a pick-van parked there rapidly spread, burning down at least six mixed-use buildings, four completely and two partially, that also housed markets, chemical and plastic warehouses and factories that used inflammable products. At least 37 fire engines contained the fire working for about 10 hours. About half a dozen cars, pick-up vans, motorcycles, a battery-run auto-rickshaw and many rickshaws, which were caught in a severe traffic congestion on the road that time burned down. The extent of damage and the reason for the fire could not be immediately established. Five committees — by the home affairs ministry, the Fire Service and Civil Defence, the city authorities, the explosives department and the National Human Rights Commission — have been set up to investigate the fire and establish the reasons. But what remains worrying in all that happened is the government’s apparent indifference and inaction for long nine years after 124 people had died in a similar fire at Nimtali in Old Town in 2010.
The fire that broke out at Nimtali in 2010 is believed to have grown so big and left a great number of casualties, as the Chawk Baza fire did, because of the chemical shops, warehouses and factories housed in residential buildings all around Old Town. In both the cases, chemical and inflammable products have fanned the flames, making it difficult for fire fighters to contain the fire. With the roads and lanes being narrow, decorated with cobwebs of electric supply lines overhead, residents in Old Town appear to be living in dangerous situation. The houses are mostly built in breaches of building codes, having no fire-fighting mechanisms. Even a small fire in such a situation could result in a large number of casualties. The government, soon after the 2010 fire, therefore, planned to relocate the chemical shops, warehouses and factories that use chemical products housed in residential buildings in Old Town. But nine years have passed by, without the government taking any effective move. The government planned to set up a chemical park at a place in Keraniganj for the relocation of the shops, warehouses and factories but the district administration is reported not to have yet acquired the land needed for the park, with the project completion deadline still being set for 2021.
The government, under the circumstances, must immediately relocate the chemical shops, warehouses and factories housed in residential buildings across Old Town. While the relocation is a must to ensure that any probable fire does not become disastrous, the government must also attend to other issues, the compliance with the building codes by house owners, for an example. The government also needs to see if the Old Town traffic could be disciplined so that people do not die from stampede as it happened for some in the case of the Chawk Bazar fire.