1 year of Chawkbazar tragedy: blaze over, not danger | The Daily Star

1 year of Chawkbazar tragedy: blaze over, not danger

Wasim Bin Habib and Mohammad Al-Masum MollaFebruary 20, 2020

The walls scorched black. A thin film of soot covering the burnt-out pillars and roofs. A smell of burnt remnants still wafting through the air around it.

This is Haji Wahed Mansion, a building in Chawkbazar's Churihatta where a chemical-fed fire left 71 people burnt to death a year ago.

The inferno forced the government to take a flurry of measures like sealing off and removing chemical warehouses in the area. Another major plan was to relocate chemical stores from the densely-populated neighbourhood to somewhere safe.

Still, Old Dhaka houses extremely hazardous stocks of flammable chemicals and risky factories without any safety measures whatsoever, putting lives of hundreds of people at serious risk of fires.

The government is still working on relocating chemical warehouses and factories from residential areas to a chemical industrial park, a move that began around 10 years ago following the Nimtoli blaze.

Shifting chemical factories and warehouses was one of the recommendations by the home ministry's committee formed after the Nimtoli tragedy. But the government could not complete it, thanks to problems in land acquisition and bureaucratic complexities.

Even the government's work to set up a temporary chemical hub is yet to be completed.

"There were huge hue and cry after the fire incident. We've seen mobile court drives and sealing off chemical warehouses. But as the public focus moved away from the Chawkbazar tragedy, many have restarted their business," said Abdul Barik, a resident of Chawkbazar.

"It's true that you will not find any chemical store on the roadside in Churihatta as many traders shifted those to other places after the fire. But some of them are still stockpiling chemicals in secret places in the neighbourhood.

"We live in panic, as the existing chemical warehouses may cause incidents like Chawkbazar again."  

 The actual number of chemical warehouse and stores in old town is hard to come by. But the leaders of Bangladesh Chemical and Perfumery Merchant Association claim they have over 1,500 members.

But at least 7,000 to 8,000 shops and stores housed in residential buildings in Old Dhaka are not affiliated with the association, said the leaders.

These warehouses store various chemicals including glycerine, sodium anhydrous, sodium thiosulfate, hydrogen peroxide, methyl ethyl ketone, thinner and isopropyl. If these chemicals come in contact with fire, there is a high risk of explosions.

Besides, a large number of rubber, plastic and sandal-making factories have been operating in some areas.

According to Bangladesh Environment Conservation Rules 1997, no industry using hazardous chemicals or goods can operate in and around a residential area; and the factory owners must have environmental clearance certificates before they can use the materials.

Ignoring the government ban, various unscrupulous traders store inflammable chemicals.

During a recent visit to Chawkbazar area, The Daily Star found no change in the plastic recycling factories in the neighbourhood.

Mehedi Hasan, assistant office secretary of Bangladesh Plastic Babosayee Samity, said, "We have only shops and warehouses of plastic granular. The plastic raw materials are non-combustible."

But experts say during a fire, such material can help spread the flames.

However, Mehedi said, "We are doing this here for generations. Why should we go?"

These correspondents also saw chemical stores in Mitford, Armanitola, Islambagh, Bongshal, Siddique Bazar and Babu Bazar areas of Old Dhaka.

There is a chemical warehouse around 500 metres from the Wahed Mansion. Some five to six rooms store raw materials for painting.

The caretaker said the owner does not live in the area, and declined to talk further.

Chan Mia, a meat seller close to Wahed Mansion, said, "We have heard that chemical stores have moved to another place. But there are still some stores operating inside residential buildings."

A resident of Chawkbazar, preferring anonymity, said, "We have seen fire department carrying out awareness activities occasionally in the area. But the efforts could not put much impact on businessmen and homeowners as they prioritise profit over safety."

Before the fire, chemicals were being transported in day time but now it is done at night, he alleged.

Mohammad Belayet Hossain, a member of Bangladesh Chemical and Perfumery Merchant Association, said this business is ages-old and it is not possible to shift overnight.

Still, many warehouses have moved to different places on their own in the last one year.

"For example, some shifted to Demra, some to Narayanganj, but the relocation was not done in a planned way. Therefore, chemical warehouses are spread across different areas of the city and we have no control over them," said Belayet, a former general secretary of the association.

But none could shift to the government designated places as those are still not ready, he said.

The government has long been saying about establishing a permanent hub but those are only limited to rhetoric. "Whatever the government does, it has to consult with us as we know how to maintain chemical," he added.

Brigadier General Md Sazzad Hussain, director general of Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence, said, "After the Chawkbazar incident, we stopped issuing any licence. All the chemical stores were not relocated from Old Dhaka. Some of them are still doing their business."

Md Abdul Halim, secretary of industries ministry, said they are hoping to relocate the chemical warehouses temporarily to Shyampur and Tongi by June and December this year respectively.

"The work for relocation is going on in full swing," he said.

About the permanent chemical village, he said they will complete the land purchase procedure by June. "We will be able to shift the entire chemical industry in next two years."

Expressing frustration, noted architect Iqbal Habib said, "If we consider the home ministry's recommendations, we will find that basically nothing changed except some awareness.

"Fire incidents are still taking place on a small scale regularly. It means another big tragedy is looming."

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