Covered drains and safe walkways: Is that too much to ask for?
Sehrin Mahbub Sadia, 19, was returning home with her grandfather and uncle on the night of September 27. A first-year Honours student at a local university of Chattogram, Sadia had just seen an eye specialist, and got a pair of new glasses. It had rained that night and the roads were a little slippery. Sadia was holding her grandfather's hand as they walked. Suddenly, she slipped in the darkness, and before anyone could react, fell into one of the notorious drains of the city. Soon her grandfather and uncle jumped into the drain too. But Sadia was nowhere to be found. After almost a five-hour search, her body was recovered, about 100 feet away from where she fell, by the divers of the Fire Service and Civil Defence.
This incident happened at the Badamtali area of Agrabad, Chattogram. Sadia, unfortunately, is not the only victim to have been devoured by the ever-gaping, man-killing drains of Chattogram City Corporation. To be precise, she is the fourth victim to have died after falling into an open drain within the span of less than four months.
About a month earlier, in August, a 55-year-old vegetable vendor, Saleh Ahmed, fell into a drain at the Shulak Bahar area near Muradpur Police Box. He remains missing to this day, despite search drives by the Fire Service and Civil Defence rescue teams. In June, two passengers of a CNG-run auto rickshaw also died as the vehicle fell into a drain at the Sholosohor area.
These deaths, tragic as they are, could not move the Chattogram City Corporation (CCC) or the Chattogram Development Authority (CDA) in the way one would have expected. These deaths were preventable but due to the apathy of the authorities, their lack of ownership of their responsibilities, as well as sheer incompetence, four ordinary citizens had to die under miserable conditions. One cannot even fathom the last thoughts of these individuals as they met their end in sewage drains.
After Sadia's death, photos emerged of a wall that has been erected around the drain, which neither the CCC nor the CDA claim responsibility for. The brick wall built around the drain where Sadia fell took up the rest of the already narrow pedestrian walkway—the street along the drain had earlier been narrowed down by the CDA to make way for the elevated expressway construction work. It is the same body that also took off all the drain slabs, according to locals, shortening the walkway to 1.5 feet from around 5 feet—making the street and the footpath even riskier for pedestrians. After the wall was erected, there is now no space to walk on the footpath anymore.
When the CCC authorities were asked about it, they denied constructing the wall and suggested the CDA might have been behind it. But the CDA also did not take ownership of the wall. The mystery surrounding the wall notwithstanding, the whole episode exposes the absolute lack of control and planning of the CCC and CDA over the city's development—which has been chaotic, to say the least—as well as the abject lack of coordination between these two organisations.
The blame game that played out in the aftermath of the drowning incidents—with the CCC and the CDA blaming each other for not doing their jobs properly—is but a manifestation of the reluctance of these key organisations responsible for the city's development and proper functioning to take ownership of their work, thereby exacerbating the misery of the common people.
Unfortunately, the death from drowning in drains and canals—both overflowing to make a deadly mix during monsoon—is not a new phenomenon for the port city dwellers. In 2020, two children, Munni Akhter (14) and Jhuma (18), died after falling into the Maheshkhal canal in Halishahar area. In 2017, near Shilpakala, a government official died after falling into a drain.
And despite these deaths, little action has been taken to improve the condition of drains and canals in Chattogram. On the contrary, due to the various construction works that are underway in the city, the road conditions have deteriorated significantly, resulting in not just deaths, but also injuries and various other problems for the residents, pedestrians and daily commuters.
Even after the recent deaths, the two bodies entrusted with the job of ensuring the development of the city have not been able to appreciate the urgency of collaborating or overcoming their tendency to play the blame game.
The extent of their failure can be understood from the fact that even after Sadia's death, the drain where she fell still does not have any slabs to cover it. No one bothered to take care of it. No one took notice. Unfortunately, there are many other such drains in the Chattogram City Corporation without slabs to cover them. Who will take responsibility of covering these drains? Who is actually responsible for them: CCC or CDA?
Perhaps the bigger question is: How long would it take for the two bickering organisations to realise their role, nay culpability, in the deaths of so many innocent individuals? Because from the way these two bodies are trying to brush off responsibility, it seems they are still living in a bubble of their own in which it is always the other party that is responsible.
This is shameful and totally unacceptable. It's high time the officials of both the CCC and the CDA woke up from their hibernation and got down to work and urgently identified high-risk areas for such drowning incidents. Instead of continuing with their petty blame game, they should collaborate and take prompt measures to make the roads, footpaths and streets safer for the people.
Innocent people cannot be allowed to suffer or die in sewage drains due to the irresponsible and unprofessional conduct of certain individuals. The central authorities in Dhaka should also take this matter seriously, and strongly instruct the concerned CCC and CDA officials to address the issues, and hold accountable those who are responsible for the maintenance of the drains and roads—because, clearly, it is due to their negligence that so many people have had to suffer.
This issue must be addressed immediately, before more lives are lost due to the failure and criminal negligence of the concerned authorities.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star.
Her Twitter handle is @tasneem_tayeb