Bangladeshi authorities said Friday they would launch a crackdown to stop businesses from illegally keeping chemical warehouses with highly flammable materials near residential areas, after a massive overnight fire killed nearly 70 people in Dhaka’s old section.
The Dhaka South City Corporation said it would lead the new drive, starting next week, to “eradicate” businesses that store large quantities of combustible chemicals within densely crowded neighborhoods, such as Chawkbazar, the site of Wednesday’s horrific fire that destroyed five buildings.
“We have decided to launch crackdowns against the owners of all chemical warehouses in the residential areas, including Chawkbazar. We will start the eradication drive from early next week,” Mostafizur Rahman, chief executive officer of the corporation, which serves as the municipal government for the southern part of the Bangladeshi capital, told BenarNews.
Yet experts and locals cast doubt over whether officials were serious about taking stern action to prevent a recurrence of this week’s devastating fire. Authorities, some pointed out, had promised a similar crackdown following another chemical fire that killed 124 people in Dhaka’s Nimtali neighborhood in 2010.
“Last week, we had a meeting with the officials of the fire service and civil defense department and the department of explosives regarding the launching of fresh eradication drives against the owners of the warehouse storing chemical substances in residential areas,” Rahman said.
But before they could launch the planned drive, the fire occurred, he said. An investigation was still under way into the cause, but officials said it appeared to have been ignited by the explosion of a truck’s gas cylinder at a chemical warehouse on the ground floor of one of the five buildings that housed apartments.
The fire killed at least 67 people and injured 50 others, officials said. It took firefighters about 12 hours to put out the blaze.
“The casualties would not be so high if there were no chemical stores. We can in no way accept such deaths,” Rahman added.
Officials said large quantities of chemicals including gas cylinders, body spray, perfume and plastic were stored inside one of the buildings that burned. The fire broke out and spread rapidly as many residents slept in their apartments, trapping people inside, officials and witnesses said.
Chawkbazar, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Dhaka, is also one of its most densely populated, with as many as 150,000 people occupying every square kilometer, experts said.
According to Mehedi Hasan Ansary, a professor of engineering, hundreds of chemical drums were discovered in the basement of one of the buildings and could have gone off like a “huge bomb” as Wednesday’s inferno engulfed the area.
“The impact would have been devastating,” he told Agence France-Presse.
Meanwhile, Bangladeshi police said they were looking for up to 12 suspects wanted on suspicion of “causing death through gross negligence” in Wednesday night’s fire, the Associated Press reported.
However, authorities did not make clear on Friday whether the crackdown on chemical businesses would also target government officials suspected of allowing the businesses to set up their operations illegally within residential zones.
‘We have a tendency to break rules’
According to experts, the 2010 Nimtali chemical warehouse fire should have been a “wake-up call.” But, they said, local people and government agencies did not learn the lesson of that tragedy through regulating and strictly enforcing Bangladesh’s housing and urban development laws.
Experts said the government must continue a year-round drive to remove all warehouses with chemical substances from the residential neighborhoods, especially in the old section of Dhaka city.
“There goes a saying that you need to be a man of action, not words. That’s where the failure lies. And it is at such an extreme level now that we have failed to force the government to do it (follow the recommendations) in nine years despite recurrences,” architect Iqbal Habib told bdnews24, a local news website.
Rajdhanu Unnayan Kartripakkha (RAJUK), a government agency that deals with planning and development in Dhaka, said it had conducted a recent survey, which revealed that a large majority of buildings in the capital were not up to code.
“We surveyed 208,000 buildings in the last six months, and at least two-thirds of them have violated the national building code in some way,” Abdur Rahman, who directs RAJUK, told Reuters.
“For some reason, we have a tendency to break rules in some clever way or the other. If this does not stop, RAJUK or any other organization cannot bring things under control,” he added.
Mostafizur Rahman, of the Dhaka South City Corporation, estimated the number of chemical warehouses operating illegally in Old Dhaka to be in the “several thousands.”
“Since the Nimtali tragedy, we used to launch drives against the chemical warehouses, but it was not regular,” he said.
Samsul Alam, chief inspector at the government’s Department of Explosives, told BenarNews that it had sent the Dhaka South City Corporation a list of 29 highly flammable chemicals, which must not be stored in residential areas like Old Dhaka.
In the wake of the Nimtali neighborhood fire, in January 2010, the fire department “probed the incident and suggested that the authorities remove all chemical warehouses from highly congested old Dhaka,” said Munim Hasan, a joint secretary at the home ministry.
“But the city corporation could not fully implement the recommendations,” he told BenarNews. “Business at the cost of people is not acceptable.”
He said the home ministry had formed a body headed by an additional secretary to investigate Wednesday’s fire. In addition, fire and civil defense officials under the ministry have also a technical committee to probe the tragedy, he said.
“The fire service department has been asked to submit the report in seven days. Once we get their technical committee probe report, we can come to know what actually caused the accident,” Hasan said.
‘Must carry out year-round surveillance’
Meanwhile, according to one urban expert, economic circumstances in the Bangladeshi capital have pushed people to co-exist close to businesses in the chemical trade.
“Due to economic and job opportunities, a huge number people live in the neighborhoods. The buildings are constructed in an unplanned way. In many cases, the buildings are attached to each other,” Professor Nazrul Islam told BenarNews.
“Fire accidents in one building easily affect other buildings. So, the authorities must carry out year-round surveillance against the chemical warehouses to stop a repeat of such fire disasters,” he said, adding that businesses preferred to set up shop in densely populated areas because rents are cheaper.
Abdul Haque, a resident of Lalbagh, another packed neighborhood of Old Dhaka, said authorities had actively clamped down on chemical business in the aftermath of the 2010 Nimtali fire, but that crackdown petered out after the press stopped paying attention.
“When media focus goes, the authorities forget everything. The businessmen maintain financial dealings with the city corporation officials so that their business goes uninterrupted,” Haque told BenarNews.
“We do not learn from the mistakes. So, in years we may see another Chawkbazar or Nimtali tragedy because the businessmen are very powerful,” he added.