Mohammad Al-Masum Molla

Many people woke up on the morning of the national holiday yesterday, seeing their Facebook friends “marking themselves safe from the Chawkbazar fire”.

By the time they rushed to their living rooms and turned on television sets, at least 50 people have been killed in the massive, deadly fire that broke out in a shabby alleyway in Old Dhaka. Within minutes, the death toll climbed to 67.

The only thing that would have come to the minds was how strikingly similar this fire was to the one that broke out nearly nine years ago in Nimtoli, also in Old Dhaka, which claimed 124 lives.

What could have been done to avoid such massive loss of lives and properties? Has the government done even the bare minimum? Why are such accidents happening time and again?

Questions are aplenty, but the answer seems to be just one: the people and the authorities concerned just don't care. Those who set up warehouses in shabby and extremely cramped residential buildings with relatively cheaper rents for storing highly flammable chemicals don't care at all. Even the devastating Nimtoli fire could hardly make them aware of the looming disaster.

And above all, the government and its policymakers virtually did nothing to relocate chemical warehouses from the densely populated residential areas.

Several hours after the firefighters brought the blaze under control, Industries Minister Nurul Majid Mahmud Humayun yesterday said, “The chemical business in Old Dhaka has been a family business. It's like a family tradition. They don't want to go far. A lot of issues are related to this. I'm from Old Dhaka. I know this very well.”

According to media reports, there are more than 25,000 chemical warehouses in Old Dhaka, of which around 15,000 are in residential buildings. Fire service officials said only around 2 percent storehouses have permission from the city corporation.

Most of the warehouses store chemicals and dyes, largely used in readymade garment (RMG) and textile factories.

One of the main reasons behind the concentration of such storehouses in stuffy old buildings in Old Dhaka is their cheaper rent compared to other parts in the city. Besides, their locations also help them cut the transportation costs.

Old Dhaka is also known as a hub for counterfeit perfume products such as scent, deodorant and other kinds of sprays. Numerous warehouses have been set up away from the eyes of law enforcers because they store counterfeit products.

Storehouses are set up in some almost unreachable and undiscoverable rooms and buildings, meaning these places are inaccessible to firefighters.

“Around 98 percent of the chemical warehouses are illegal and they operate at night. They don't have licences. We have warned them several times, but in vain,” Fire Service and Civil Defence Director General Ali Ahmed told The Daily Star.

After the Nimtoli fire in 2010, the government had pledged to relocate these chemical warehouses to a new, specialized and thinly populated area in Keraniganj on the outskirts of Dhaka. But the government even couldn't procure land to set up a warehouse zone in almost nine years.

Chemical safety expert Prof Syeda Sultana Razia, also the head of Buet's chemical engineering department, said storage of chemicals and other industrial materials in residential areas must be stopped.

“Since it is directly related to livelihoods of many people, the government must relocate and rehabilitate them first. Shutting down storages in densely populated residential areas without relocation will not help.”

After the Nimtoli fire, a government probe committee had made a 17-point recommendation. It suggested shifting warehouses to non-residential areas, enforcing Fire Prevention and Extinguishing Rules 2003 and Bangladesh National Building Code, installing separate hydrant points in all areas in the city which firefighters could make use of at times of disasters, forming a cross-functional licence issuing body and updating school and college textbooks to raise awareness from an early age.

Experts said the government needed to indentify, sack and arrest those officials who were responsible for making sure that there were no illegal chemical warehouses in Old Dhaka.

The industries minister said, “The chemical warehouses will be relocated to a new area at the earliest.” He, however, did not mention any time frame.

What they had Said
The Nimtoli inferno, caused by a chemical fire in Old Dhaka, left 124 dead on June 3, 2010. Following the tragedy, government high-ups made statements on the actions they would take so that a fire like that never occurred. Below are some of the statements and recommendations made:

“The culprits must face stern action. Further investigation is required to find the culprits out.”

Sahara Khatun, the then home minister

“If high-rise buildings are found to have been built without proper approval of the authorities concerned, legal actions will be taken and illegal parts of the buildings will be demolished.”

Abdur Razzaque, the then food and disaster management minister

“The committee decided to introduce hydrant points all over the country, not only inside buildings, malls and homes, but also at different points on the streets.”

Inter-Ministerial Disaster Management Coordination Committee

[Against the backdrop of a devastating fire at Nimtoli, the government directed the owners of chemical warehouses to move their stocks to a safer location by August 17, later extended the deadline till September 30, 2010.]

“Action would be taken against the traders for failing to meet the deadline set by the government. There is no scope for extending the deadline further.”

Dilip Barua, the then industries minister

"We will clean off Old Dhaka.” “At least 200 locals will be given basic training on firefighting, first aid and searching for survivors."

Brig Gen Abu Nayeem Mohammed Shahidullah, the then director general of fire service