The government has made little progress in relocating hazardous chemical businesses and warehouses from Old Dhaka, leaving the residents in constant fear following the two devastating fire incidents that claimed over 200 lives.
The chemical-induced Nimtoli inferno in June 2010 claimed 126 lives, prompting the government to embark on four projects as part of the relocation plan.
Ten years have passed after the tragedy, but the projects, taken at different times, are still at the preliminary stage. According to the latest update, land was either being acquired or filled in one or two projects, while the others face further uncertainty due to a dearth of fund allocation.
The only "considerable progress" over the years has been made at one front -- constant revision of the primary project proposals -- which contributed to cost escalation and time extension.
The cost of the four projects, which was around Tk 686 crore at the beginning, has now increased to around Tk 2,667 crore, according to documents.
With the four projects related to chemical, plastic, printing and light electronics in virtual limbo, another devastating fire broke out in Chawkbazar in February last year that claimed 80 lives, giving a cruel reminder of the Nimtoli tragedy.
More than a year after the Nimtoli fire, the government had decided to set up two temporary warehouses to immediately shift hazardous chemical warehouses from the old part of the city. But the temporary projects -- one in Tongi and other in Shaympur -- are still in the "work in progress" state.
A cabinet meeting on February 25, 2019, decided to cancel all licences for preserving and storing chemical and petroleum products in residential areas. The cabinet also restricted issuing any new licence in this regard and directed the authorities concerned to take necessary steps to relocate this kind of go-downs promptly.
Accordingly, Dhaka South City Corporation stopped issuing new licences or renewing the old ones for any chemical shops or warehouses in Old Dhaka.
But chemical businesses in the old part of the city remained as it was before.
Although the traders claimed that they have relocated their go-downs to "safe locations", they said they were unable to move their entire businesses elsewhere unless the government relocated them according to an MoU signed in 2017.
But a drive by Rab on August 17 at a warehouse inside a residential building in Tikatuli only justified experts' fear that chemical go-downs that had previously been concentrated to a particular pocket in the old part of the city have now grown covering a bigger area.
"We found huge amounts of explosive chemicals which might cause a devastating fire anytime," Rab Executive Magistrate Polash Kumar Bashu, who led the drive, told this newspaper on Wednesday.
He said there might be many warehouses in Dhaka like this one and that they were collecting information about them.
During a recent visit to some areas, including Mitford Road, Nimtoli, Chawkbazar, Armanitola, Babu Bazar, Islampur, Mohuthtuly and Chhurihatta last week, these correspondents found many chemical shops were being run and many buildings being used as chemical warehouses.
Md Ripon, who lost six of his family members in the Nimtoli tragedy, said they do not allow any warehouse in their area, but there are chemical warehouses nearby.
Selim, who runs a shop on Abul Hasnat Road, said there are many residential houses in the area where chemical products are stored and that those might cause a devastating fire.
Arif Hossain, general secretary of Bangladesh Chemical and Perfumery Merchants' Association, said, "We will leave the area after getting a plot from the government. Otherwise, it is not possible for us to leave."
He said there are around 2,000 shops in Old Dhaka which are doing chemical business.
Arif claimed that every chemical item is not explosive or flammable and those who are doing the business of the flammable items have arranged separate warehouses outside Dhaka.
He, however, did not deny that some traders might be secretly running warehouses in the old part of the city despite strict instructions from their organisation against it.
He urged the government to quickly implement the relocation plan in line with the MoU signed between BSCIC and the three organisations -- Bangladesh Chemical and Perfumery Merchants' Association, Bangladesh Chemical Importers and Merchants' Association, and Bangladesh Acid Merchants' Association -- in 2017.
Prof Dr Syeda Sultana Razia, head of the chemical engineering department of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, said the failure of the authorities to relocate the chemical go-downs from the old town might cause another devastating fire.
"Nothing has changed in Old Dhaka," she told The Daily Star.
The Buet professor also said apart from 35 chemicals identified as extremely hazardous or flammable, there were many more.
"The Department of Explosives prepared the list of hazardous chemicals which are explosive and flammable, but there are some chemicals which do not generate fire. However, those are toxic and if released through vaporisation can create serious problems and kill people," said Prof Razia.
She said the authorities should have prioritised the relocation plan taking the risk into consideration.
The BSCIC as the implementing authority is constructing "Chemical Polli" for the three merchant associations and another three separate estates for plastic, printing and light electronic industry at different sites in Munshiganj, a neighbouring district of Dhaka.
STATUS OF CHEMICAL POLLI
The Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation Chemical Industrial Park at Boalkhali village in Munshiganj's Sirajdikhan upazila is running behind schedule. The park will have around 2,000-2,500 plots on around 308 acres of land.
The cost of the project, which will have a central effluent treatment plant and incinerator, now stands at Tk 1,615.73 crore, said Project Director Saiful Alam.
He hoped to get the possession of the land, for which BSCIC paid Tk 531 crore, from the district commissioner (DC) and start earth filling after the rainy season.
"We will be able to accommodate most of the shops and warehouses of the old town in line with MoU signed in 2017."
About the delay, he said initially the project was going to be implemented on 50 acres of land, but now it has been expanded to 300 acres land for which it took around one year to complete the land acquisition work.
"We will be able to complete the project by June 2022," he said.
The project, drafted in 2011, was supposed to be implemented on 20 acres of land. It was then extended to 50 acres at a cost of Tk 201.80 crore and was scheduled to be completed in June 2021, according to documents.
However, the latest completion date of the project might be pushed behind if fund allocation is delayed.
"We needed Tk 200 crore in the current fiscal year for earth filling and other works. But we have so far received only around Tk 60 crore. If we do not get funds timely, we will miss the schedule," said Mohammad Ataur Rahman Siddique, director (engineering and implementing) of BSCIC.
The progress of BSCIC Plastic Industry Estate Project has been very slow due to fund crisis.
Director Ataur of BSCIC said they did not get money for acquiring land for which they could not complete land acquisition.
He said 300 plastic factories on 50 acres of land could be relocated from old town under the project.
The Ecnec approved the project in July 2015 and the work was scheduled to be complete by June last year. The Ecnec then approved the revised budget on February 11 this year with an extended project cost of Tk 397.45 crore.
A BISIC official said they have got Tk 49 crore out of Tk 218 crore for land acquisition in the last fiscal year.
The BSCIC Printing Industries Estate Project, whose site is located between the two bridges over the Dhaleshwari in Munshiganj's Sirajdikhan upazila, is now facing uncertainty due to complication in land acquisition, although the project was scheduled to be completed in December 2018.
The Ecnec passed the project worth Tk 138.70 core in January 2016.
A BSCIC official, preferring anonymity, said around Tk 78.61 crore out of Tk 79.14 crore for acquiring 43 acres of land for the project has been paid to the deputy commissioner's office on different occasions.
Sources said a revised Development Project Proposal (DPP) of around Tk 345 crore was sent to the planning commission and the Project Evaluation Committee was waiting for Ecnec meeting.
The work of the Light Engineering Electric Goods project on 50 acres of land at a cost of Tk 213 crore is going on. The earth filling has already been completed, construction of boundary walls and some other works are going on, said BSCIC director Ataur.
He said the project in Tongibari upazila in Munshiganj is expected to be completed by June 2022 with a revised cost of around Tk 309 crore.
The government in August last year approved the Chemical Warehouse Project in Tongi to relocate 55 warehouses on six acres of land.
Bangladesh Steel and Engineering Corporation (BSEC) has been implementing the project. "We will complete the first phase of work to construct seven one-storey warehouse buildings by November this year," said Project Director Maniruzzaman Khan.
However, a revised project proposal on spending Tk 170 crore to construct an eight-storey building to accommodate an additional 48 chemical warehouses is now waiting at the planning commission for approval.
Maniruzzaman said if they get the approval, they will be able to complete the revised project by June 2022.
The construction work of another temporary project named "Go-down for Temporary Facilitating Chemicals Storage Project" at Dhaka's Shyampur has been facing slow progress.
Bangladesh Chemical Industries Corporation is implementing the Tk 77.89 crore project on 6.17 acres of land. The project, scheduled to be completed in June 2020, was later extended by a year.
The project is aimed at facilitating 54 warehouses for traders doing businesses of extremely hazardous chemical.
Project Director Md Liakat Ali said the project implementation slowed down due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.