Fire-related accidents may not be the only emergency situations that we face in our lives. We Bengalis have too many exigencies to think about.
But let’s talk about accidental fires today.
After the fire broke out at Shaheed Suhrawardy Medical College Hospital, we came to know that more than 95 per cent of Bangladesh’s hospitals doesn’t have any fire-related compliance system. When I first read about it in the papers, it was truly difficult for me to believe it. No security in so many hospitals? If there are 20,000 hospitals in the country, 19,000 of them don’t follow any fire safety measures! You must be joking! This cannot be happening to us!
It just reminded me of a hospital that I usually go to for checkups and possible treatment. That hospital is fire safety-compliant... I asked one the staffers of those hospitals about the state of their safety measures. She replied that they had fire extinguishers all around their premises and vicinity.
However, she also told me that they spend quite a lot of money to replace the extinguishers, but they knew for sure that officials responsible for replacing them were not actually replacing it. The officials responsible were somehow pocketing the money and keeping the old equipment hanging on the walls of the hospitals beyond their expiry date.
So, fire safety is also a governance issue – an issue that directly relates to corruption.
I humbly suggested to her to arrange fire drills in every quarter, so that they could know that the extinguishers were up and running. She thought it was a great idea as far as their governance and compliance are concerned.
Allow me to tell what we do in my workplace. It’s a telecom company and each and every move is regulated as well as controlled by the government’s numerous authorities so that we remain compliant as a company. Therefore, we have all kinds of fire and human safety measures across our establishments. We arrange unannounced fire and earthquake drills in every quarter.
Yes, it is a multinational company and the government is quite strict about our health and safety compliance. Now the question is: why can’t the government enforce the same measures when it comes to the local companies as well as the apartment buildings and shopping malls? After the Nimtoli fire a decade ago, the then national leaders had confidently promised that all kinds of chemical shops and warehouses would be removed and relocated from that area.
A decade has passed by and we see that our respected leaders haven’t done anything or couldn’t do anything about what they had promised. The question is: why are they leaders, then? They don’t, themselves, follow up on their own promises. When another manageable disaster happens, they again make new promises.
This, too, a governance issue. The authorities clearly fail to deal with local companies in the way they deal with multinational companies.
Now, what is the deal? There must be some deal, y’know! Otherwise, why shouldn't we be able to enforce the law the Bangladeshi businesses the same as we do with the foreign ones? According to a news report in a Bengali daily, 80 per cent of residential buildings is chemical warehouses in the old part of Dhaka. The situation is despicably horrendous; isn’t it? How could this have continued for so long?
We also have more than 60 [or is the number 80?] universities where we have a concentration of population. Do the universities have any health and safety compliance guideline? Are they following it? And is anyone monitoring them? Are the university administrations regularly reporting to the related government authority about their safety issues?
Then, what about the schools? We see innumerable reports in the media where millions of children are attending their classes in unsafe conditions. Now, of course, the government is aware of it and it also allocates required funds to the local authorities. Unfortunately, the funds aren’t being rightly utilized. See! This certainly is a governance issue.
A decade after what happened in Nimtoli, now we’re again debating who was responsible for not relocating the chemical warehouses from the area! Who is responsible? The government? The businessmen? That’s a crucial question we need to find an answer to. When we argue over responsibility, we also know that nothing perhaps would change. The loss of lives would continue. There would be many more Nimtolis and there would be many more Chawkbazars.
Ekram Kabir is a story-teller. His works can be found on ekramkabir.com.