Promises not kept: families of Chawkbazar fire victims get no compensation in 1 year
As bodies after bodies were wheeled into Dhaka Medical College's morgue on February 21 last year, there was no dearth of offers of help.
There was a realisation of the fact that the Chawkbazar fire was the result of a collective failure of the state and the society. The government as well as many from the private sector stepped in with promises of financial aid for the victims and their families.
A day after the tragedy, on February 21, the Ministry of Labour and Employment promised a compensation of Tk 1 lakh for the families of each of the deceased, who were either street hawkers, rickshaw pullers or workers at different establishments in the area. A press release signed by Monnujan Sufian, state minister for labour and employment, stated such.
On December 18 that year, a board meeting of the Bangladesh Labour Welfare Foundation decided to raise the compensation money to Tk 2 lakh. The ministry made a list of 27 deceased workers it would be helping out using the foundation's funds.
Earlier in April, 40 private banks deposited cheques worth Tk 30 crore in the government's national relief fund in assistance for all the victims, according to a report The Daily Star ran on April 4.
A few days before that, Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) Mayor Sayeed Khokon, at a public hearing at the capital's Cirdap, promised city corporation jobs to the families of the deceased.
All those promises, however, remain caught up in bureaucratic tangles.
The Daily Star correspondents spoke to the families of 40 of the 71 killed in the devastating fire in Chawkbazar's Churihatta. They did not get a single Taka from the authorities mentioned above, in the last one year.
The only compensation they received was Tk 20,000 given to each of the families along with body bags at the DMC morgue. The money was to meet burial expenses.
That's it. Since then, zilch.
Asked, the ministry and the DSCC authorities said they were working to fulfil the promises, adding that the promised money and the jobs would be given "soon".
The apparent noncommittal "soon" does not help the young bride of 29-year-old Mahbubur Rahman Raju Miah, who used to work at a mobile phone servicing shop at Chawkbazar. They were married just 26 days before the fire killed Raju.
When Raju died, she had not even completed her high school and all of a sudden, she realised she was pregnant. Still, she gathered courage and sat for her HSC exams and passed. She gave birth to a baby boy later in November.
Raju's brother Meraj said he visited the ministry in late August last year, a day after he got a phone call from there. "The date was August 30. They took our documents and said we need to wait for the head of the state to hand us our cheques, and so we left," he said.
"It has been more than five months since then, with no phone call and no news from the ministry."
The family members of paanwalah Mohammad Ibrahim went to the ministry's office on October 29 last year after getting a phone call from an official. Once there, they were told they wouldn't be getting anything.
"I went to the Secretariat building and then dialed the number I had received the call from. Someone on the other side asked me to wait. A person then came with a list and asked me whether Ibrahim's name was on it. It wasn't, and so we were not let in," said Ibrahim's brother-in-law Nurnabi.
Nurnabi could not name the official who called him over the phone. "We feel like we were being harassed," he said.
The Daily Star collected a list of the deceased workers, who are supposed to receive the compensation from the ministry. Ibrahim is the first name on the list.
In the meantime, his wife's hope of getting the compensation is fading every day.
After Ibrahim's death, Bibi Hajera went back to their hometown in Feni and now makes shital pati (bamboo mats) to run her family with two daughters, aged three and seven.
There is another victim with a similar name, Mohammed Ibrahim, a rickshaw puller from Kamrangirchar. But the ministry's list does not include the name.
The Daily Star spoke to his sister-in-law Shireen, with whom Ibrahim's wife Rokhsana and her 10-year-old daughter currently live.
"My husband is also a rickshaw puller. He is the only earning member of the family. He only earns Tk 200-300 every day and its really tough to manage a family of seven with that money," Shireen told The Daily Star.
Ruma Begum's husband Mohammad Billal, another victim, left behind an empty pantry the day he died. "We had no rice at home, no vegetables, literally nothing. I was waiting for him to come home with groceries so that we could eat," said Ruma.
Billal used to stitch curtains for a decorator shop. Ruma is supposed to get Tk 2 lakh from the ministry, but has not received a single penny yet.
Just days before the tragedy, a drug store employee Anowar Hossain Monzu, another victim, went on a picnic, along with his family, at Wonderela Green Park in Dhaka's Nawabganj. He posted photos of that day on social media on February 15 last year.
A year later, his son no longer goes to his school in Dhaka as his mother Nahida Rahman cannot afford the expenses. They now live in Noakhali's Begumganj with her brother. She struggles to run her family with a little money he earns from giving tuition to children in the area.
"I've failed to bear the expenses even at a village school. His uncles are saying they will bear the costs if my son is admitted to a madrasa.
"Everyone makes promises, but nobody actually helps," she said, adding that she moved to her brother's home as she could not pay the monthly rent of Tk 9,000 in Dhaka.
Asked why the money promised had not been handed yet, Md Rezaul Haque, director general of Bangladesh Workers' Welfare Foundation, said the process of verifying the victims' identity was a lengthy one.
"We have to cross-check information at the field-level through the DC office and the Department of Inspection of Factories and Establishments … we are waiting to finish verifying the details of all the deceased before disbursing the money," he said.
Families of four more deceased workers said they did not even receive a phone call from the ministry.
The ministry had, however, given an emergency help of Tk 50,000 to each of 10 injured on February 24 last year.
Contacted, Mayor Khokon's Protocol Officer Habibul Islam Sumon said they were working to provide jobs to the victims' family members.
"We will meet them at the anniversary of the fire, and give them cash, shops, and jobs," he told The Daily Star. Those will be financed completely from the mayor's discretionary funds," he said.
Asked why it took so long, he said, "It was very difficult for us to find the victims of the fire, and we have managed to get the contacts of only 31 people over last one year."
The Daily Star correspondents got the details of the 71 deceased and their family members in a day, from Churihatta Ekota Sangha, a social welfare organisation established by the locals in Churihatta after the fire incident.
Meanwhile, the DMC authorities have prepared the post-mortem report on 67 victims and would submit them to police soon, said Sohel Mahmud, associate professor and chief of forensic medicine department at the college.
"Of the 67, 45 have already been identified while the 22 others were identified through DNA tests," he told this daily.