After dozens of deaths in two devastating explosions in the space of eight months, questions have been raised over the monitoring of factories by the authorities in Chattogram’s Sitakunda.
As the government agencies sat to discuss a plan to reduce the risks of accidents in heavy and medium industries in the district on Monday, it turned out that they do not have the exact number of factories in the area.
Shahadat Hossain, the chief executive of the Sitakunda Upazila administration, said a survey showed the area has 480 small to large industrial units, including shipbreaking yards in the area near the Dhaka-Chattogram Highway.
The Upazila administration officials inspected 54 of these factories in 2022 and gave them safety instructions after the BM Container Depot inferno following an explosion that claimed more than 50 lives.
“The Upazila administration can’t monitor so many organisations,” he said.
Abdullah Al Sakib Mubarrat, deputy inspector general for Chattogram at the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments, said 575 factories in Sitakunda are registered with the agency. “We don’t know how many others are operating without registration.”
Abdul Maleque, a deputy director of the Fire Service and Civil Defence, said they had information on inspection, but he did not bring the data to the meeting.
Chattogram Deputy Commissioner Abul Bashar Mohammed Fakhruzzaman said he heard the number of factories in Sitakunda was much bigger than the ones presented by the agencies.
He ordered the agencies to survey the factories and the risk factors.
“We must not allow any factory to open without full compliance. And let’s make a crash programme to ensure compliance with the regulations at the existing industrial units.”
Bashar ordered the Department of Explosives and the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments to categorise the most vulnerable factories as red, more vulnerable as yellow and less vulnerable as green.
STATE OF AFFAIRS LAID BARE BY OXYGEN PLANT BLAST
The discussion revealed that Sheema Group’s oxygen plant, where the latest blast killed seven people earlier this week, did not have an environmental clearance, fire safety plan and permission to set up a boiler.
Two diploma engineers and a supervisor who studied humanities ran the Sitakunda oxygen plant, while its air separation column operator was absent during the deadly blast, according to Sheema Group Managing Director Mamun Uddin.
The fire service and the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments said the plant was asked to act in compliance with the laws, but it ignored repeated calls.
The government agencies, however, did not take action against the plant for months despite non-compliance issues found in inspections. Managing Director Mamun claimed the company acted in compliance with the regulations.
Md Solaiman, a superintendent of industrial police, suggested shutting down factories whenever they fail to act in compliance with the rules. “Accidents can occur if they are given three months after the inspection. Most of the factories don’t have water. Then how will they douse a fire?”
SM Al Mamun, chairman of Sitakunda Upazila council, alleged the blast would not have occurred had the government agencies monitored the factories properly.
He accused the government agencies of giving certificates to the factories in exchange for bribes.
“We have many large industrial units here. They put retired government officials in their HR departments but do not pay the workers what they deserve,” he said.
Tapan Dutta, a leader of the Trade Union Centre, agreed with Al Mamun that the government agencies, along with the factories, failed to ensure the safety of the workers and locals.
“The owners have made tens of billions of taka from the factories in 50 years by exploiting the workers.”