Even after the devastating Nimtoli inferno, chemicals are still being sold from shops on the ground floor of residential buildings in Old Dhaka. The photo was taken from SCC Road in Armanitola. Photo: Star
Little action has been taken to make Old Dhaka a safer place for residents even after the deadly Nimtoli fire from chemicals three years ago.
The inferno killed as many as 123 people and injured 200 others on June 3, 2010 as it spread through inflammable chemicals stored on the ground floor of a residential building. But that seems to have been a less than stern warning against such chemical storage as many buildings at Nabab Katra, Bangshal, Siddique Bazar, Sat Rowza, Babu Bazar and Armanitola still have factories with flammable objects on their ground floors.
Following the incident, the Dhaka district administration carried out drives for four days in Old Dhaka and sealed off 25 chemical warehouses, said the then executive magistrate Mohammad Al Amin, who had led the operation.
But the mobile court stopped raiding the areas after businessmen dealing in chemical goods appealed to the government for some time for relocation.
There are now about 150-300 chemical wholesale shops between Armanitola and Mitford, but not all of them have their godowns there, said Mansur, manager of Nazrul and Brothers, a chemical supplier in Armanitola.
Many warehouses, including that of his shop, have been moved to Fatullah, Narayanganj, over the last three years, he said. He added that the shops kept small amounts of chemicals for retail customers.
"The businessmen themselves want to relocate their establishments outside Dhaka -- to places with sparse human habitation for safety," said Brig Gen Ali Ahmed Khan, director general of Fire Service and Civil Defence.
The government in 2011 pledged to allot 60 bighas of land in Sonakandi, Keraniganj, on the outskirts of the capital for chemical warehouses.
Asked what steps had been taken to shift the chemical warehouses and shops, Industries Minister Dilip Barua told The Daily Star that the shifting required a lengthy bureaucratic process.
The proposal had been discussed at inter-ministerial meetings, he said. If the Awami League-led grand alliance returns to power at the next general election, it will be able to start relocating the warehouses and shops within a year.
However, owners of chemical shops in Armanitola are sceptical about the government's efforts to relocate their godowns elsewhere.
"We have heard that we will be relocated to the shores of the Dhaleswari river. But we don't know when the process will begin," said a member of Bangladesh Chemicals and Perfumery Merchants' Association, requesting anonymity.
A shop owner at a chemical market on Ohiullah road, Armanitola, said the chemical businessmen wanted to move out of Old Dhaka because the rent was very high. No building owners want to rent out their places to the businessmen and when they do they face protests from local people.
Remembering the horror of the night three years ago, residents of Nimtoli and its neighbourhood expressed dissatisfaction over the government's inaction in changing the situation.
Even no action has been taken yet to punish Mohammad Ohid Ullah Mazumder, owner of the warehouse from where the fire generated in 2010, they say. They also demand immediate eviction of all factories that store flammable goods.
"Chemical business is rampant in the areas and there is no effort to stop it," said Mohammad Mamun, father of seven-year-old Boishakh, who was burnt to death at his shop in Nimtoli on the ill-fated day.
"We don't want any compensation. We want punishment of those who were responsible for the tragedy."
Of the victims, Gulzar Elahi and his brother Mohammad Faruk lost eleven members of their family in the Nimtoli incident.
"We want people to learn from our mistakes and be aware of who they rent out their places to," said Gulzar.
He said he had been unaware of his tenant storing flammable objects on the ground floor of their building. "The tenancy deed clearly stated that no flammable object could be stored."
At a press conference organised yesterday in memory of the Nimtoli victims, Dr. Samanta Lal Sen, burn and plastic surgeon at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, said that every year 12-14 lakh people receive burns in Bangladesh and of them, 12,000-13,000 die.
The doctor emphasised the need for making people aware of the causes of fire and primary medical treatment of burn victims.