Relocation of chemical warehouses could save so many lives in old city

Faruque Ahmed

The Chwakbazar tragedy that killed at least 80 men, women and children and left several hundred people fatally injured in the old city in the night of February 21 came as a terrible shock to the entire nation. Many families have disappeared, others would live with the bitter memory of the family members lost on the occasion.
There is no denying of the fact that the government inaction or making compromise of the severity of the issue by some members of the government with powerful business lobbies can’t be ruled out as reason for the renewed accident.
The nation was observing the Language Day at the time and city dwellers were overcrowding at the Shahid Minar to place floral wreath when the devastating fire in chemical godowns hit turning the area into a ball of fire. It was just about a kilometer from Shahid MInar that largely turned people’s mind from celebration to grieving.
This is not however a new. Such devastating fire in chemical godowns, mainly located at the ground floor of multi-storied buildings in the area are in a sense living volcanos if and when there will be some accidents. Similar accident had also hit the Nimtali area of the old city in Dhaka in June 2010 killing at least 124 people — also men, women and children and maiming as many others.
It had also terribly moved the nation as the shocking stories of death and injuries of people and devastation of property in flaming fire in the city heart hit the headlines of the national dailies. It captured media headlines again.
Plainly speaking some experts have demanded demolition of crowded areas of the old city to create a new one. It must have wider streets and planned buildings to allow unhindered movement of people and vehicles as part of a modern city. The High Court has also demanded such action plan in an earlier order for making life of the people safe.
Such demand proves highly rational as it often happen that fire fighting vehicles fail to enter some areas of the old city. It happened this time also in their desperate bid to reach the burning spot in the Chwakbazar area for narrow roads. It is a reminder once again that people should not be forced to live in narrow lanes and sub-lanes surrounded by overcrowded chemical stock piles.
Commercial greed and decent human life can’t go together. Such chemical warehouses should be far away from crowded place for living.
But the question is why the government failed to move out chemical godowns and explosive acids stocks from the area. Along with government decision to move out these stocks from old city gpdowns, the High Court had also directed the government to remove these explosives to safe locations. It also asked the government to develop a planned city in the old town for better living.
But meanwhile, precious time has passed out while such orders passed unheeded. Other initiatives also remained unfulfilled. This time also a High Court bench has also asked the government and other concerned authorities to do things that the HC had also demanded previously to protect people’s life and property. Only time will say if the authorities would pay heed to such directives.
Reports said in the aftermath of the devastating fire in Chawkbazar, the government has decided to temporary move out chemical warehouses from old Dhaka the city’s Shyampur and Tongi areas in an attempt to prevent any further fatal accidents.
The decision came on Wednesday last after a meeting between business leaders and government officials on initiative of the ministry of industries. Concerned people say it may take six months’ time for the relocation. Some warehouses may also be relocated in Narayganj’s Fatulla area. But the question is will it work or overlooked again.
The nation has mourned the sad incident. Political parties are blaming the government for past inaction. Gonoforun president and Jatiya Oikyafront leader Dr Kamaal Hussain held the government responsible for negligence for the Chwakbazar tragedy. In his view had it paid heed to the court order and took other preventive measures the renewed tragedy could be avoided. He said the government may be charged for murder.
He ruled out the government claim that everything can’t be done overnight saying nine years is not small time when the same government was in power. The government had done nothing for relocation of chemical warehouses from old city because some were compromised, some others had almost forgotten the explosive issue.
Dr Kamal said “We demand a logical answer from the government for the tragedy,” at a function at Jatiya Press Club last week. “The government cannot ignore the responsibility of the fire incident as it is bound in ensuring safety and security of the people’s lives and properties,” he said.
It may be mentioned that following the Nimtali tragedy on some writ petitions by six rights organisations and a rights activist the HC passed an order on June 10, 2010 asking the government probe committee to find the cause of the fire and submit a report within three months.
The court also asked the taskforce formed at that time to identify the unauthorised buildings, warehouses and factories where chemicals, explosives and other flammable or petroleum products — both authorised and unauthorized – were stored and similarly submit report to the court within three months apparently for order of relocation.
The court issued show cause to know why the government should not be directed to take actions and adequate measures for preventing and fighting against eruption of fire in the city demanding actions to develop a planned city in the old part of Dhaka to make it safe and better livable.
Petitioners’ lawyer Barrister Sara Hossain last week said the government was yet to respond to the court order and rule issued by the HC after the Nimtoli tragedy after nine years of the tragedy. Meanwhile another such fire devastated life and property.
The Court did not issue any further rule against renewed writ petition on Chwakbazar fire this time demanding response of the government against earlier rule.
Meanwhile, a brief exchange last week between two former industries minister amply exposed how both the ministers at the center of managing chemical warehouses had neglected the cause to keep it alive to hit again.
Dilip Barua told reporters at spot last week as he was visiting the area with a delegation of 14-party coalition partner of Awami League that “It would have been easier to relocate chemical godowns from Old Dhaka, had our (previous) industries minister (Amu) taken the issue seriously.”
“Chemical Merchant Association, BISCIC came up with a decision that chemical business would be relocated to a land outside Dhaka when I was the minister. It was our pledge. But the whole process could not proceed due to some discreet issues,” he said.
Dilip Barua said the stakeholders could not force the government (to relocate) if the government does not act. The building owners also cannot shrug off responsibility. They rent out their godowns to chemical dealers at inflated rent and helped to hide the matter, he observed.
In reply Amir Hussain Amu said he had taken initiatives on several occasions for relocation of warehouses, but the businessmen did not agree to relocate them. Amu blamed businessmen’s unwillingness for failing to relocate godowns which turns out suicidal again. He however claimed some success in this resects saying during his four year tenure he was able to get government approval of 50 acres of land to set up a chemical relocation village. That’s all.
He said he didn’t see Barua’ name in any file that was processing the relocation move during his tenure. But the fact is that both Barua and Amu had utterly failed or even didn’t seriously pursue the matter.
This was because powerful importers and local house owners renting their space at high rates for storing explosives were able to buy the silence. The power of money was able to defeat the right of the people to live in peace and safety.
To prevent any further fire-related human catastrophe like what occurred in Chawkbazar, experts and officials have suggested immediate temporary relocation of highly combustible chemicals from densely-populated Old Dhaka. A permanent relocation would take years.
“On a priority basis, a total of 29 extremely hazardous chemicals should be shifted to some isolated places under supervision of the Department of Explosives,” Prof Maksud Helali of Buet’s mechanical engineering department said at a roundtable discussion in the capital.

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