Residents, authorities turn a blind eye to risk of devastation in congested Old Dhaka

Although the landlords and the businesses are making ‘huge profits’ from the area, they pay no attention to their own safety

Golam Mortuja
Published : 8 March 2023, 11:07 PM
Updated : 8 March 2023, 11:07 PM

Mizanur Rahman, a tea seller in Old Dhaka’s Siddique Bazar, was working at his stall on a narrow alley behind the building where a blast devastated the sanitary product stores on the first two floors on Tuesday afternoon, killing 20 people so far.

“A loud bang rocked everything, blowing away the table in front of my shop and two customers. People rushed out of the Sundarban Courier Service office, crying for help. Some were bleeding, some lost limbs. I lost consciousness after dragging some of them to safety,” recalled Mizanur.

On Wednesday, he was at home, a 300 square feet space with a room, a kitchen and a toilet. The room is on the third floor of a four-storey building on barely 700 square foot land around 30 yards from Mizanur’s shop.

Mizanur pays Tk 8,000 to the landlord monthly. The rent of his tiny shop is the same.

The corridors of the building where Mizanur lives is barely enough for one person to pass. One has to stop if someone comes from the opposite direction.

And the corridors are filled with shoe boxes kept by wholesalers of footwear. In fact, the area is renowned for wholesale shoe markets, and the courier service’s business is based on the orders the shoe traders get.

Locals said space is the most desired thing in the area. The landlords have built on and rented out whatever space they have, leaving no gap between structures.

“We’re used to living like this. What can we do? God has fixed our livelihoods here,” said Noor Mohammad, a local.

Although the landlords and the businesses are making “huge profits” from the area, they pay no attention to their own safety.

“Don’t the buildings in posh areas like Gulshan or Banani catch fire? Haven’t you seen the fire in a wealthy people’s building in Gulshan some days ago? When a building in Banani caught fire, people jumped off to save their lives. Then why do some suggest that only Old Dhaka is a risky place?” argued young man Shihab, who gave a single name.

Aktar Mahmud, an urban planning expert, differs with Shihab. Aktar says the risk of casualties or damage from fire incidents is higher in Old Dhaka than in other areas of the capital because of congestion and dense population.

“The utility lines are old while highly flammable chemicals are warehoused in the buildings of Old Dhaka. The streets are so narrow that it is difficult to conduct a rescue operation if devastation strikes.”

Only last month, Bangladesh remembered the victims of the inferno that claimed 71 lives on Feb 20 night, 2019, in Chawk Bazar.

As many as 124 people died in the 2010 Nimtali fire fuelled by chemicals stored at a warehouse. Chawk Bazar and Nimtali are only a few kilometres away from Siddique Bazar.

“We’re lucky that there wasn’t a fire incident. Otherwise, we all would’ve been done for,” said Md Altaf, a trader of Siddique Bazar, comparing the latest blast with the Churihatta and Nimtali incidents.

Brig Gen Md Main Uddin, director general of the Fire Service and Civil Defence, said on Feb 22, two days after the anniversary of the Churihatta tragedy, that they did not issue any licences for factories in Old Dhaka after the Chawk Bazar incident.

It means people are doing business in the areas illegally, but no government or regulatory agency is acting against them.

Many see the authorities turning a blind eye to the risk of devastation in Old Dhaka as unjustified.

Efforts can bring changes, and the readymade garment industry has shown that, they argue.

After the Tazreen Fashions fire and the Rana Plaza collapse, intense pressure and support from Western buyers helped Bangladesh reduce the rate of casualties during accidents in clothing factories.

“The garment factories hold fire drills regularly. The workers are well aware of ways to save themselves from danger,” said Kalpana Akter, executive director at the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity.