Relocating Old Dhaka warehouses: Now or never

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Md Sharif Hasan
Published : 23:09, Mar 14, 2019 | Updated : 23:31, Mar 14, 2019

Md. Sharif HasanThe recent major fire of Chawkbazar is only a repetition of a similar fire-related accident of Nimtoli in 2010. 124 people were killed in that accident. If proper lessons were learnt from the Nimtoli incident, it could have been possible to prevent the devastating blaze of Chawkbazar. We didn’t have to face the gruesome exhibition of charred corpses inevitably. It was proposed that chemical warehouses should be relocated after the deadly incident of Nimtoli, a suggestion that received the attention of the government. But, once the period of mourning ends, the brainstorming ends as well. The number of chemical warehouses drastically was increased in number instead of THEIR being relocated. Many new warehouses were set up after getting their licenses. Net outcome: people got burnt again. The pungent scent of burnt bones and flesh was sickening to most people. But it is just a matter of time for people to completely forget the matter.
Are human lives valuable or not? The warehouses located in busy towns would have been removed if lives were considered worthy. After the Nimtoli tragedy, it would never take 10 years to implement a relocation project if people valued their lives. People would never have turned into burnt bodies. Who is to blame? That’s a difficult question to answer. There is an alternative idea to relocate the warehouses from within crowded cities. That is to relocate the inhabitants to other areas instead of removing the chemical warehouses. At least their security will be ensured. Our collective conscience will never be able to take charge of the matter. Duties never get done. So, people are dying on the roads, in their own houses or in the offices. Security is nowhere to be found apparently.
The project was proposed in 2010 but was approved only in 2018. IT was neither passed nor implemented for 10 years. Four thousand chemical warehouses and factories are scattered around the city of old Dhaka. Overpopulated town like Dhaka would never have any factories in it if this wasn't Bangladesh. For establishing a chemical safe house in Keranigonj, the suggested plot wasn’t even claimed within 8 years. The project manager was appointed last January in 2018 after the certification of ECNEC. But the lack of funds delayed the project.
Once the fund is finalized, BISIC will claim the plot as soon as possible. The ministers, mayors, chief officers vowed to relocate the warehouses during the years separating the tragedy of Nimtoli till the tragedy of Churihatta in Chawkbazar. The then Trade Minister couldn’t relocate the warehouses or take action against illegal chemical business although he was empowered to do so. But, he won't take the responsibility for this failure.
The then commerce minister Dilip Barua is blaming the former commerce minister Amir Hossein Amu. On Feb 23, the General Secretary of Communist Party and a partner in the alliance of 14 parties led by Awami League, Dilip Barua expressed personal discontent against outgoing industries minister Amir Hossein Amu for taking no steps for removing the chemical warehouses from old Dhaka during a press briefing. He stated that the removal of the warehouses would have been easier if former minister Amir Hossein Amu took the matter seriously.
The truth is that everyone talks about major issues without taking any steps. The projects that are directly sponsored by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina only gets implemented. Movement against drug addiction needs her attention, so also the initiatives against food adulteration. Why is everyone being passive?
We are not conscious, the lack of an awareness among the authority leads to these dangerous incidents. The creation of a habitable and secure Dhaka failed because of the failure of social corporate responsibility. Also the stockholders were not able to put pressure on the government. Building owners are also responsible for this. They secretly give on rent their houses for chemical storages for earning extra profit. Home ministry and city corporations should be more strict for certifying chemical storages. After the incident of Feb 21, people are still asking why the death toll and loss of property can not be known.
More than one hundred people died during the similar fire incident of Nimtoli 9 years ago. The Ghost of their past is still haunting the survivors. The harmful chemical factories and storages were supposed to be uprooted from old Dhaka but these are still there. This resulted in another fire accident. It's natural to ask about the security breach of old Dhaka.
Who will take the responsibility? The authorities connected with the government and local inhabitants can not deny their responsibilities. People won't be secured unless the government enforces existing laws. The settlers of old Dhaka can not feel the irony of their fate.
Is political power at the root of these tragedies? The government was facing pressures after the Nimtoli fire. The government was forced to relocate nearly 800 illegal chemical factories and storages to Keranigonj. The project could not succeed. Environment activist Abu Naser Khan stated that most of the chemical storages and shops had no registration or license. These business magnates and the local contributors were part of a vote bank and political power that made them resist any raid. They are economically and politically powerful. So all ends up being a failure. Besides fire service, police force or environment ministry didn't give this matter a thought. The officials of city corporations also disregarded their duty.
The urban land redevelopment project was proposed by the government. Capital city development authority also tried to revamp the design of the city. This project seemed to be effective for awhile after conversations with the locals. Capital city development authority tried to make people conscious about the necessity of reconstruction by referring to the examples of overcrowded nations like Japan, Korea and Singapore. The project turned out to be a complete failure thanks to the lack of enthusiasm of locals and the discouragement from the authority. So the initiative was nipped in the bud. The roads are still narrow and obscenely crowded. There isn't even any place left for parking an ambulance. No wonder the accidents are happening frequently.
The condition of land redevelopment program clearly states if one owner disagrees with the deal the whole project fails. Capital city development committee couldn’t work out a solution after long discussions. Some were afraid of losing the ownership of their plot. Many plots are enlisted as sources of police case. The owners are unsure about the ownership of their plots which causes them to wonder whether they have to hand over the land to the redevelopment authority. Locals are creating obstructions for this reason. But redevelopment programmes are necessary evils that can not be avoided for re-organizing the old Dhaka into a planned city following the example of countries like Japan, Korea and Taiwan.
If most of the opinions go against the city development authority (RAJUK), the projects come to an end without seeing the light. Sometimes it’s better to regulate obligations rather than supporting negotiations because lives come first. The city should be secured at any cost. After the barbaric fire incident of Chawkbazar, ambulances couldn’t get space for parking. Immediate access to the vehicles of fire service was impossible. Water that was necessary for extinguishing fire was scarce. Land redevelopment project could have solved these issues. But the project was never launched because of some people. But, there isn’t any alternative way regarding this problem. It must be pursued to its proper end. We don’t want any more people to embrace unnatural death.
Md Sharif Hasan teaches International Relations at the University of Rajshahi.

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