The first major fire this year was Chowk Bazaar fire incident. On 20 February 2019, fire broke out in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Fire started in a road accident between a pickup van and a private car. After the collision the private car’s gas cylinder exploded. The fire then spread to a group of buildings being used to store chemicals and quickly expanded to nearby buildings in the densely packed historic Chowk Bazaar of Old Dhaka. The first building to burn housed shops and a warehouse storing plastic goods, cosmetics and perfume on the first floor, with residential housing on upper stories.
Eventually it spread to the four-storey building behind the adjacent Mosque. From that building, the fire spread to a restaurant and three other buildings in the narrow alley. An electric transformer exploded just after the fire broke, which demolished several cars parked on the alley. The alley was full of people because of a wedding ceremony in a nearby community centre. The fire left at least 71 people dead and 50 others injured.
This type of incident was nothing new in that part of the capital. Old Dhaka is so prone to fire disasters that last year it saw at least one fire incident a day on average. Fire service data show at least 468 fire incidents struck the old town’s Lalbagh, Hazaribagh, Sadarghat and Siddique Bazar area, where more than five hundred chemical warehouses and factories operate illegally. Casualties were low as one man was killed and two others were injured in these incidents but they damaged properties worth Tk 6.88 crore, the data show. The scenario has not improved in Old Dhaka for years and the risk is intensifying every year.
The second greatest fire incident of this year took place just few days ago. At least 25 have died in the devastating fire in capital’s Banani’s multi-storey FR Tower. About 21 units of the fire service were engaged in efforts to tame a blaze which broke out in the 23-floor FR Tower on afternoon of March 28. The flames were fully doused after nearly seven and a half hours of efforts. While the police confirmed the death of 25 victims on Thursday, the fire service initially put the number of casualties at 19. Some of the dead victims were burned or suffocated while the others jumped off to their death.
FR Tower was a commercial building with hundreds of offices with thousands of employees and visitors inside the building. It was the last working day of the week, a Thursday on which the fire blazed in the afternoon. As the fire broke out from the seventh floor of the building, the people in the upper floors got trapped due to fire, heat and smoke. They were even trying to escape jumping from the windows which were way high to survive. The emergency exits were reportedly locked and people could not use that.
Though fire service arrived at the scene early, it took some time for them to start works due to the size of the building, inadequate tools of the fire service and interested crowd. It took a lot of time to finally take control of the flaming fire but it was done at last with 25 lives lost. Apparently the building was built without following building code and had an inadequate fire safety measure which is still subject to investigation.
Though the above mentioned two incidents were most devastating with so many lives lost, several others not so intense fire students took place this year. There were fire outbreaks in two-three slums and after the FR Tower incident, Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) kitchen market was set in fire. Though lives were not lost, huge property loss incurred. Many other small incidents were reported in the last few days. But unfortunately it seemed like none is caring and is just waiting for the next incident to happen.
After a tragic incident with many human lives loss, we tend to discuss a lot for few days but any concrete action is never taken. After some tears are shed, our thoughts, prayers and everything else goes back to normal. Our authorities, administration and all relevant departments actually wait till the hype of the incident is over and then they forget their responsibilities. If this trend continues to occur, then it will be very hard to avoid such tragic incidents in the future also.
It is evident, observing the major incidents, that the buildings of Dhaka city do not follow the Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC) 2006. BNBC was first drafted in 1993 but not formally reviewed and updated. In 2006 the Building Construction Act was amended to include a new section 18A, empowering the government to promulgate the building code as a legally binding document. It covers planning, administration and enforcement, general building controls and regulations, requirements for different uses, fire protection, building materials, design and services. Importantly, it also considers building use, density and building height.
Unfortunately, BNBC is not followed in construction of buildings in Bangladesh and the relevant authority is completely liable for that due to being one of the greatest sources of corruption in our country. It is unimaginable that without proper safety plan, buildings are being constructed here in this era of modernization and smart technologies. Moreover, there is no check for discrepancies in construction as the authority is very reluctant. They are not at all concerned of the consequences of their corruption which often make them the killers of hundreds. The relevant officials are so corrupt that even if everything is alright with the plan, the service-seekers will have to pay illegally to get any approval or license.
So, the service-seekers do not want to get bothered and they pay bribes at every stage to get the work done. Every building on a land more than 20 kathas or more than 40 flats or more than 10 storied require to obtain a fire license issued by Fire Service and Civil Defense. Though all building owners collect the license in order to get approval of their plan, there is no monitoring from the authority over the implementation of the relevant conditions.
Moreover, RAJUK, City Corporation, Fire Service and Civil Defense are the related authorities to check on this issue but no one really cares. Fire Service authority is supposed to check on a yearly basis and to train on fire safety and to conduct drills in every building provided with fire license. But it is never found in Bangladesh. In the recent fire incidents, many died because they were not trained or did not know what to do and this is not at all acceptable.
RAJUK has formed 24 teams to check the status of BNBC compliance and fire safety measures in buildings of Dhaka city after the Banani fire incident. This step has actually opened the new doors of corruption. Now these teams will harass the building owners even if everything is proper and millions of taka will be transacted as bribes and this is not the right approach considering the contexts of Bangladesh as it seems the citizens are taken as foolish.
First of all, the buildings with wrong construction and no fire safety must be identified fast. Then the authority has to find out who from the relevant offices gave approval of the design and construction of the building. The person providing fire license should also be identified. This has to be done even they are retired from the jobs. Then these officials must be brought under justice. This will make the authority alert and hopefully they will take their jobs seriously which can bring such incidents almost at zero.
The citizens must be made aware of the activities they should do while facing fire incidents. Rigorous campaign is must. It is unfortunate that only if they had fire safety training, all 25 lost souls of Banani fire could have been saved. Not only at Dhaka but also at all divisional cities and district headquarters with heavy industries must be brought under large-scale awareness campaigns.
The building owners should act a bit humanistic. They should not be all profit oriented rather they should follow all the rules and regulations in a proper way so that lives can be saved in the future. We, as the users of buildings, should also be aware and should not live in buildings which do not possess fire safety measures.
The Fire Service and Civil Defence should be provided with better equipments and they must be trained with modern fire fighting techniques. Their lack of skill is also regretfully hurting our ability to face fire situations. But, most importantly, we have to eliminate corruption from the offices of relevant authorities. Only if we can do that, then several accidents related to fire and other construction related hazards can be avoided and we hope the government will put deep focus on that without wasting any time as the summer is approaching soon.
The writer is chief editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), editor at Kishore Bangla and vice-chairman, Democracy Research Center (DRC)