Nimtoli tragedy: The worst nightmare
THE havoc caused by the devastating fire at Nabab Katra, Nimtoli in old Dhaka on the night of June 3 has sent shock waves across the country and beyond. Never before, as the burn unit chief of Dhaka Medical College and Hospital said, had the burn unit of DMC or for that matter any other hospital in the country seen so many burnt people coming for treatment at a time. Nor had Azimpur graveyard ever seen so many coffins at a time.
117 people were instantly burnt to death, and at least another 150 received critical burn injuries. 38 of them are still fighting for life in hospital. Among the dead are thirteen dear and near ones of a bride and bridegroom who got together in the bride's house at Nimtoli to attend an engagement party. All the 21 people residing in one of the seven houses caught in the blaze were burnt alive.
It was impossible for anyone who had been either eyewitness or watching television coverage or reading newspaper reports of the incident to hold back their tears. Ferdousi, a 28-year old woman, tried in vain to save the 2-year old baby of her sister by holding the baby tightly in her lap. Both were burnt alive. It was difficult for the domes at morgue to separate the dead bodies of the two held so tightly against each other.
Babu, a small trader of Nimtoli, sacrificed his life in a vain attempt to save a 10-year old girl from the inferno, leaving behind his young wife to mourn his death and deliver their first baby at any moment.
It was good to see that the entire nation, profoundly shocked as it was, stood by the victims with all the support and sympathy. A national mourning day was observed throughout the country with due solemnity. Flags were kept at half-mast atop all official, semi-official buildings and establishments at home and Bangladeshi embassies abroad.
Special prayers were held at mosques, temples, churches and pagodas all over the country for salvation of the departed souls. The heads of governments of several foreign countries, including the USA and Great Britain, instantly sent their condolences.
The government did everything possible to help the victims of the inferno. The president, the prime minister and the leader of the opposition quickly came forward with all their sympathy and support. Prime Minister Sheik Hasina quickly rushed to the spot, canceling all her official programs, and spent a whole sleepless night personally supervising the rescue operation and medical care of the wounded survivors.
The prime minister made certain that the fire victims got the best possible treatment in hospitals and clinics at state cost. She ensured that the related government agencies came forward whole-heartedly and helped the victims in every possible manner.
Under her leadership, everybody -- the Fire Brigade, the army, the law enforcing agencies, the hospital authorities, the doctors and the nurses, the domes, the sweepers -- worked hard day and night with sincerity and devotion.
The prime minister and her entire rescue and rehabilitation team certainly deserve kudos for the excellent service they rendered to the ill-fated people of Nimtoli.
By now we all have seen or known what happened at Nabab Katra on that fateful night of June3. We also have a fair idea of the possible causes of the incident. It is now time to reflect upon why it happened and who is responsible for this? As pointed out by The Daily Star through its editorial of June 6: "The time has come for us to not merely observe mourning day but also a 'national accountability day,' for it has been a huge absence of accountability that has brought the nation to such a pass." Who can disagree with this observation of The Daily Star?
There can be no argument that a chemical warehouse situated on the ground floor of a five-storied residential building was the main source, if not the origin, of the fire, which erupted like a volcano and spread like wildfire, engulfing the entire building and the neighbourhood in a flash.
It is estimated that 80% of residential houses in old Dhaka have some kind of factory or warehouse on the ground floors and residential flats on other floors. Most of these warehouses or factories are either of chemicals or plastic materials. Both are dangerously toxic and inflammable.
It is also reported that 50 thousand houses of old Dhaka are risky for living. Among them, 22 thousand are at high risk. Nearly 3 million people living in old Dhaka face the risk of death.
It is also reported that most of the houses in old Dhaka grew in clusters. The roads there are very narrow. So narrow that ambulances or fire brigade vehicles find it extremely difficult to approach the place of occurrence for any rescue operation. That is what happened in the Nimtoli incident.
Now the point is, every business concern, whether it is a warehouse or a factory, needs a trade license. The license is issued by Dhaka City Corporation. If it deals with toxic or inflammable materials, like chemicals or plastic, it certainly needs clearance from at least two other departments -- environment and industry. In addition, probably all warehouses and factories need an inspection certificate from the Fire Brigade authority.
The question is, did the Nimtoli chemical warehouse have the required clearances? If they had, how did they get them? If they didn't have them, then what were all these agencies doing all these years?
The law is that there cannot be any commercial organisation, let alone a factory or chemical warehouse, in a residential building. How is it that there was a chemical warehouse in a residential building?
It is the job of the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakha (Rajuk) to see that the city grows in a planned way with due regard to the comfort and safety of the city dwellers. Did they do their jobs properly? If they did, how is it that the fire brigade could not easily approach the site because of narrow roads? Why do we talk about Nimtoli or old Dhaka? What about new Dhaka? Has it grown the way it should have? The answer is a big NO. Even some of the city experts who were at one time or other entrusted with the job of development of the capital now agree that Dhaka has grown in a most unplanned manner, so much so that it has now become an almost inhabitable city.
The main reason behind all these anomalies and lapses is the lack of accountability, the presence of all-pervading corruption to be blunt. The government has ordered an official investigation to find out the causes and persons responsible for the incident. There is nothing more to gain from these investigations.
The reasons are all apparent. The persons or agencies responsible for these happenings are not also unknown. What is required now is direct action. The first step would be a thorough cleansing of the related agencies followed by establishment of accountability in every tier of administration.
Capt. Husain Imam is a retired Merchant Navy officer. E-mail: email@example.com.