Collective failure

All five affected buildings built in violation of building and fire safety codes; yet no one faced action
Locals offer prayers for the victims after the Juma prayers at Churihatta Shahi Jame Masjid. Photo: Anisur Rahman, Palash Khan

The devastating fire in Chawkbazar is the outcome of a collective failure of the authorities concerned.

After the Nimtoil fire that claimed 124 lives in 2010, a probe committee formed by the authorities recommended moving the chemical warehouses out of Old Dhaka to prevent future tragedies. But the recommendations have mostly remained on paper.

Relocation of the warehouses from residential buildings in old town remains a far cry to this day.

One of the reasons why Wednesday's fire in Chawkbazar's Churihatta was so difficult to put out was the presence inflammable goods kept in the four-storey Haji Wahed Mansion, firefighters said.

Besides, the building was constructed without permission from the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha.

The flats of the building were used illegally for commercial purposes, namely storing flammable and inflammable goods. Moreover, businesses run from the building do not have required licences, officials said.

In fact, it is highly likely that none of the four other buildings that were affected by the fire had Rajuk permission, said its Chairman Abdur Rahman.

He said 90 percent of the buildings in Old Dhaka were built without any permission from the authorities. In most cases, the buildings have been built flouting fire and other safety codes.

It is illegal to have warehouses in buildings meant for living, he said, adding that the owner of Haji Wahed Mansion had not been traced yet.

Asked to comment about the inflammable substances stored in the old town buildings, Samsul Alam, chief inspector of the Department of Explosives, said the warehouses should have been relocated long ago. But the space where they were supposed to be moved is not ready yet.

"We had not issued a single licence for chemical factories in Old Dhaka since the Nimtoli fire," he said.

Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments is supposed to visit such factories and warehouses regularly.

Contacted, Amar Chan Banik, additional inspector general of the department, claimed that the inspectors regularly visited  the factories, but failed to give any more details about of his department's conduct.


Although the National Fire Code became a law in 2006, not a single case has been filed for its violation, said Maksud Helali, professor of Department of Mechanical Engineering at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.

“There is no implementation of the law. There is also a lack of awareness. We do not abide by the law. Especially, the powerful do not care about the law. That's why innocent people die and the influential ones remain untouched. I cannot remember a single person being accused of violating the fire code. Maximum punishment for the offence is seven years in prison,” he told The Daily Star.

Asked, Rajuk Chairman Abdur Rahman said suing the owners or demolishing the buildings would not solve anything.

"We need to motivate the local people. They do not want to move their businesses from the area," he said.

Asked what could have led the locals to ignore the risks, Mekhala Sarkar, associate professor of psychiatry at National Institute of Mental Health, said people were in denial.

“Denial is like a defence mechanism against painful, harsh realities, which people adopt for short-term benefits. It applies to people who run in front of speeding trains or trucks in the highways just to save a few seconds of their time. It also applies to people who refuse to use foot bridges, and so on,” she said.

Meanwhile, a probe committee formed by the home ministry yesterday visited the site.