Relocating Old Dhaka chemical warehouses in limbo

Udisa Islam
Published : 07:30, Feb 22, 2019 | Updated : 07:30, Feb 22, 2019

The debris left by the fire that ravaged Old Dhaka's ChawkbazarThere was a massive outcry in 2010 after a deadly fire in Old Dhaka’s Nimtali that was made worse by the presence of chemical warehouse claiming more than 120 lives.
Many promises on the government’s part to relocate the chemical factories were made but they were not implemented.
As a result, a similar tragedy struck Old Dhaka once again on Wednesday (Feb 20) as a massive fire that reportedly originated on the ground floor of a building housing a chemical warehouse, ripped through the neighbourhood, gutting buildings and killing at least 70 people.
Once more after the fatal fire, Dhaka South Mayor Sayeed Khokon has pledged to “take stringent measures to evict illegal chemical warehouses.”
According to environmentalists and disaster management experts, this announcement wouldn’t have been needed if lessons had been taken from the 2010 Nimtali blaze.
They say that only relocating the warehouses won’t do the job. Experts believe that it’s equally important to pin point the source of the fire.
Meanwhile, many feel that most victims are burnt to death as they were trapped inside the houses.
Given the narrow lanes snaking between tightly-packed buildings in Old Dhaka, they think that it’s safer to work with the buildings than to solely rely on fire service.
In June 2014, the industries secretary announced that the warehouses will be relocated to a separate zone in 17 seven-storey buildings.
South Mayor Khokon said in March 2017 that the relocation process will start and shortly directed them to be removed and just two days before the Chawkbazar fire broke out, he ordered raids conducted by mobile courts on illegal chemical warehouses.
Responding to queries on why the relocation was not made despite the many promises over the years, Khokon said, “The incident happened suddenly. We warned them many a times and led mobile court raids there.”
Saying that the City Corporation lacks manpower, he added that hundreds of houses in Old Dhaka, one of the largest trading hubs, store chemicals in houses. “It’s difficult to supervise that.”
“We had already started work to inspect every single house but the tragedy happened suddenly,” he said.
According to environmental body Bangladeh Paribesh Andolon (BAPA), Old Dhaka is home to over 25,000 chemical warehouses among which 22,000 are illegal. Only 2,500 are licensed and 1,500 of those are inside residential buildings.
The main problem is the fire management system, according to Gawhar Nayeem Wara of the Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability at the Dhaka University.
“The main source of the fire is electricity transformers and no matter where you relocate them, it will always be a fire risk. We need to think about management” he said.
Most of the fire-related deaths happen due to inadequate fire escape facilities and authorities concerned can easily take care of these issues, according to him
Wara added that disasters, like the Chawkbazar and Nimtala fire go out of hand even before fire services reaches and hence a community-based initiative is the best way to tackle these situations.
BAPA General Secretary Abdul Matin thinks that the government’s negligence to relocate the chemical warehouses is the main cause.
“The business community has to cooperate too. They can’t do business at the cost of human lives. They bear some blame for so many lives lost,” he told Bangla Tribne.
Afsan Chowdhury has been working on disaster management for a long time now. He, like many others, believe had the measures the government promised since the Nimtali fire been implemented, the Chakbazar tragedy could have been avoided.
Industries Secretary Md Abdul Halim said that relocating the chemical warehouses is a 2021 project on 50 acres of land.
Saying that it will be tough to implement the plan within the designated time frame, Halim added that the businessmen don’t want to move too far and Keraniganj or somewhere nearby is the only option.