It has been a month since the devastating fire at Churihatta in Chawkbazar took 70 lives. The suffering of the people who lost their loved ones to this fire is beyond description; their losses cannot be compensated. And more horrifically, it seems that it will be difficult for Bangladesh to prevent such disasters in future.
There was a time when thousands to millions died from natural disasters. Just 100 years ago, widespread contamination of cholera and chicken pox would wipe out the population of an entire metropolis. During the 1990s, people died from cyclones or tsunamis. But an increase in the amount of national initiatives and public awareness has reduced the death toll in storms and floods. But the success in this sector is undermined by large amounts of people dying from artificial or man-made disasters.
During the past few decades, water vessel accidents or launch capsizes were nothing but artificial disasters that have taken dozens to hundreds of lives. These accidents were caused by the greed of the owners who had willingly exceeded the passenger limit for extra profits by using damaged ships or hiring inexperienced crews.
Building collapses were a result of the negligence of the owners and unplanned infrastructures. The collapse of Rana Plaza in Savar took the lives of over 1,100 garment workers and injured 2,500 people. The building plan of Rana plaza was not legal. In 2005, a few years before the Rana Plaza incident, Spectrum Garment collapsed due to faulty infrastructure, killing more than 70 people. The fire at Tazreen Fashions garment factory in Ashulia on Nov 24, 2015 killed 102 workers.
There is no doubt what happened at Tazreen Fashions was a manmade disaster caused by nothing but actions of people. Flammables were stashed dangerously and carelessly, if not illegally, near electricity generators or switch boards that can spark fire anytime due to malfunction. The spread of the fire could have been prevented had the flammables were not kept near the electricity generators and switch boards. Also, the gate of the building was reportedly kept closed to stop theft when the fire started.
The Nimtoli fire at Old Dhaka, just a kilometre away from Chawkbazar, killed 124 people, which does not fall under the category of natural disasters. Since the place was a chemical hub, a stove fire caused the death of 124 people within three hours. The investigations proved that if there were not any chemical factories or raw product reserves, the fire wouldn’t have become so dangerous.
According to public opinion, enforcing fire protection laws in Churihatta and by learning from the Nimtoli incident would have been enough to guard the place against the fire. An explosion caused by a gas cylinder can turn into a tragedy because of the presence of chemical factories and reserves.
To highlight the contribution of chemicals in the spreading of the fire, some data can be included from the daily ‘Desh Rupantor’. The first page of a certain edition featured an article titled “A burnt hand of a child in the disaster site of Churihatta” which said that 10 katha (1 katha = 0.03125 acre) of land supported the five-storey building, which was filled with flammable products. The Wahed Mansion was the source of the fire. Some media reports oppose the narrative of the cylinder explosion and say the fire was caused by explosive chemicals. The cylinder of the pickup van that was being considered as the main source of fire was found in mint condition by the investigators.
The report in Desh Rupantor states that the ground floor of the building was reserved for plastic factories, offices, a restaurant, decorators and a warehouse. The first floor was scattered with cans of aerosol, body sprays and cosmetics. The north western part was inhabited by the owner Shahid and his family while the east northern flat was occupied by a plastics businessman. The neighbouring six storey building was a reserve for cosmetics, Osaka scotch tape, electric and torch lamps, plastic nipples for babies along with tons of plastic materials and glass items up to the third floor. That place was like a barrel of gunpowder where people dared to live.
Two matters must be considered – firstly the people of Churihatta were living in an explosive environment before the open eyes of the authority. Secondly, even if the inhabitants were aware of the incident of Nimtoli, they didn’t care to leave such a place. The first matter is important since it highlights the negligence of government organisations, which is persistent in other sectors as well. The second matter is more significant since it can be compared to committing suicide by consuming poison. In addition, the lack of fire protection systems had played a part and the negligence of government authorities is revocable.
It can be recalled that after the fire at Nimtoli in Old Dhaka, the former industry minister was seen taking steps to move chemicals away from the area. But it did not come to fruition. The statement by the mayor of the Dhaka South City Corporation explains the cause of his failure and the aversion of the current industry minister. On Feb 23, national daily ‘Desh Rupantor’ reported that when the current minister tried to uproot the chemical factories in 2016, the plastics businessmen requested him to stop the investigation through the former minister. According to the businessmen, there was a settlement in Keraniganj that would allow them to move away the chemicals. In reality, the place is not prepared yet, and neither is the monetary fund for the project.
The sad reality cannot be denied that these are the faults of the government because it attempted to secure the wealth of businessmen and the lives of people. The shameful act of the businessmen is another reason. But the greatest mystery is the uncertainty of the current minister regarding the matter of the chemicals stored in the building. He himself grew up in the Old Dhaka and has said that the business of chemicals were hard to uproot because it was founded by the ancestors of those living there. He has also told ‘Desh Rupantor’ that he will try to remove the factories even if that caused him loss.
The reason for the fire at Chawkbazar and Nimtoli is slightly different from other artificial disasters. So the solution is complicated. The greed of owners and the support of the government can be considered the reasons behind the incidents of boat capsize, the collapse of Rana Plaza and the burning of Tazrin Garments. But it does not exemplify the incidents at Nimtoli or Churihatta. It must be remembered that Old Dhaka was founded about 400 years ago. The inhabitants live there not only for accommodation but also for business. In a nutshell, these buildings are part of their homes and means of life. After all, Old Dhaka is an important part of our tradition and as a result, the landscape of that place cannot be altered by expanding the width of roads or removing their family businesses.
One last observation closes this discussion. Dhaka is a crowded place, with Old Dhaka even more crowded than new Dhaka. The life, work and culture of the people cannot be separated from each other in Old Dhaka. So to secure the lives of people there, the government should be inventive in its actions and sponsor the life and culture of the people there and respect their opinions.