What is 10.30 at night in most places is more like mid-evening in Chawkbazar, as it is in the rest of the Old Town in Dhaka. The first shops are only just closing. People are starting to return home. CCTV footage from the fateful date, February 20, shows a scene of almost calm serenity from one end, and on the other a restaurant business still in brisk mode, the chapatis still being flipped, the patrons still ambling in, potential customers crowding the road outside.
The source of the explosion that at 10.32pm, rocks this scene of absolute normalcy inside out on a stretch of Churihatta in Chawkbazar, Nandakumar Datta Lane, is key to understanding the tragedy that would go on to envelope that night. The ensuing inferno would wrap itself around the densely-packed buildings and take no less than 37 units of the Fire Service nearly 10 hours to bring under control. Officials initially said they had recovered 81 bodies, but later revised the casualty figure downwards to 67. Scores were taken to hospital, some with critical burns, and two more lives were lost later at the Burn Unit of the Dhaka Medical College and Hospital.
The first thought that crossed people’s minds as they heard about it harked back to the horror of the tragedy that struck Old Town almost 9 years ago now, less than a kilometre away in Nimtoli, that killed 124. Occasioned by an electrical transformer going bust, it was established that the sheer intensity of the fire that night had been fuelled and sustained by the toxic atmosphere in the area created by the presence of a number of makeshift chemical godowns housed inside residential buildings. We racked our brains trying to recall, weren’t they supposed to be moved out after that? Could it be that we had earned ourselves the ultimate slap across the face from Fate, for ignoring the serious lesson we were meant to learn from Nimtoli?
It turns out we did. And let’s be clear, this is irrespective of the source of the latest fire. The way it spread and the intensity at which it burned, was unquestionably spurred by the presence of flammable chemicals stored in the area, whether separately or as part of consumer goods like body spray and lighter refill liquid or even nail polish remover, of which thousands of canisters or bottles were found strewn across the area in the aftermath of the fire. Somewhat shamefully though, some people claiming to be witnesses tried to avert this theory by claiming the fire had been caused by an exploding LPG or CNG cylinder, of which no evidence was found. All such cylinders in the area at the time, including in vehicles passing through, were found intact.
Even journalists earned rebuke for reporting the presence of chemicals in the area. People involved in chemical business and homeowners told many reporters not to cite warehouses as a probable cause of the fire and requested them to report that the blast of a gas cylinder triggered the blaze. Visiting the area the day after the fire, barely hours after it had been brought under control, Industries Minister Nurul Majid Mahmud Humayun regrettably added his voice to this disingenuous chorus. The force with which he expressed this may compromise the investigation launched by his ministry. Most other official sources however, were quite unambiguous.
Although yet to submit their reports officially, all of them were leaning towards a chemical reaction on the 1st floor of the Haji Waheed Mansion, the grandest building in the area, that stored deodorants, lighter refilling fuel, electrical equipment and other flammable or combustible items, that caused an explosion of such force that it blew out the walls on that floor. The one facing the street flew 50-60 feet across, according to Khandaker Shabbir Ahmed, a former head of the BUET architecture department who surveyed the scene a few days later, and mangled the building on the opposite side of the road, before falling to the ground. Thousands of cans of deodorants and other items immediately rained down on the street, and kept exploding like little bombs throughout the night.
Aided by CCTV footage and eyewitness and first responder accounts, it is possible to establish that this was the explosion that ripped up the picture of calmness that night. Later it was revealed that the basement of the building, where the fire fortunately did not spread, contained a huge stockpile of chemicals. A team of firefighters searching the building two days after the fire made the nerve-wracking discovery that several hundred barrels and sacks of combustible and flammable substances were stored in the basement. What the official investigations finally say remains to be seen. The position of the chemical warehouse owners or those who rent them out however, this time would seem to be untenable. They have got to go.
Observing that the Chawkbazar inferno that claimed the lives of 67 people is not an accident, the High Court on February 25 said someone had to take responsibility for it.
It also said the fire incident would have not happened had the 17-point recommendation placed by the probe panel formed by the Home Ministry after the Nimtoli fire been implemented.
“This incident is unexpected. It can’t be called an accident. Someone must take the responsibility for it. One responsible person is shifting the blame on another. This is not right,” said the HC bench of Justice FRM Nazmul Ahasan and Justice KM Kamrul Kader.
They came up with the observations while hearing three petitions filed over the fire incident. Four writ petitions have been filed with the HC seeking its directives to relocate chemical warehouses from Old Dhaka, provide compensation for the Chawkbazar fire victims, and dismantle unapproved buildings from the area.
Three of them were placed before the HC bench on Monday for hearing. Barrister Ruhul Kuddus, Riaz Uddin stood for the petitioners. Deputy Attorney General ABM Abdullah Al Mahmud Bashar said Attorney General Mahbubey Alam would be placing arguments before the court and they sought time for this.
The court for its part noted that the prime minister herself had adopted two girls after the Nimtoli fire. “Will affectionate alone be of use? Many lives were lost again. Someone must deliver. The Prime Minister can’t do everything alone. We came to know through newspapers that the Prime Minister monitored the Chawkbazar incident. She can’t run the country alone. The administration concerned should have executed the suggestions.”
Mentioning that the house owners in Old Dhaka rent their establishments for using as warehouses at 2-3 times higher rent but reside in posh areas like Gulshan and Banani, it questioned what the city corporation is doing. “They pretend not to see anything. People die on roads. What’s their fault?”
Citing newspaper reports, the HC bench said no step was taken to implement the recommendations of the probe committee after the Nimtoli fire incident. “They were responsible for executing those. We don’t know whether they’ve take any step. We’ve to consider that they have negligence in their part if they haven’t taken any measure.”
The court also said Old Dhaka is plagued with numerous problems. “Fire Service vehicles can’t ply the roads. ….there’ll be no building left if there’s any earthquake measuring 7-8 on the Richter scale.”
Ignorance as bad as negligence
The fact however is that many of the owners also reside in the same buildings as the chemicals, showing that it is a reckless lack of awareness as to the dangers, rather than negligence towards the safety of others, that lies behind their dangerous tendency. Both the sons of the late Abdul Waheed, who built Waheed Mansion some 18-20 years ago, resided in the building with their respective families (those present on the night were able to escape unhurt). Ex-industries minister Dilip Barua, on a visit to the site of the tragedy, said the immediate past-industries minister, Ami Hossain Amu, had not taken the issue of relocating the godowns seriously.
In 2010, in the aftermath of Nimtoli, when Barua was the industries minister, the government undertook a chemical warehouse relocation project involving Tk 201 crore on over 50 acres of land in Keraniganj. Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC), a department under the Industries Ministry, undertook the project titled ‘BSCIC Chemical Park’.
"Chemical Merchant Association, BSCIC came up with a decision that that chemical business would be relocated to a land outside Dhaka when I was the minister. It was our pledge. But the whole process could not proceed due to some discreet issues,” said Barua. “It would have been easier to relocate chemical godowns from Old Dhaka, had our industries minister (Amu) taken the issue seriously.”
Following the initial pledge, it took around four years to ready the papers for the project, according to sources in the ministry, which passed from Barua to Amu in 2014. Readying the DPP, or Development Project Proposal, took another four years. But on October 31, 2018 the project did get the final approval from the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC).
Officials said land acquisition was the key problem for a delay in implementing this project. Different opinions between chemical trade bodies are also responsible for slow progress of the project, they added. This time however, there can be no more passing of the buck.
Somewhat redeeming himself after his earlier comments, Industries Minister Nurul Majid Mahmud Humayun has since expressed his firm commitment to relocation of chemical warehouses. The BSCIC Chemical Park’ at Keraniganj will be implemented within 2021, he said.
According to the BSCIC, the project area is designed to be divided into three zones -- acid, explosives and other chemicals where each trade licence-holder will be allocated around 400 sqft. There is also a plan to shift chemical storehouses from Narayanganj and Munshiganj. Under the project, traders will be provided with facilities like electricity, gas, road links, developed land and other required facilities in the zone.
Urgency at last
On February 23, the chemicals stored in the basement of Waheed Mansion became the first to be shifted out of the area to a temporary location in Keraniganj. “As of now, a total of 25 trucks loaded with chemical substances have been shifted from the Wahed Mansion basement to Keraniganj,” Udayan Dewan, the executive magistrate of the Dhaka South City Corporation, who is supervising the whole process, told reporters. Two days later, the government set a deadline of August 25 for relocation of all chemical warehouses and factories from Old Dhaka, following an emergency meeting of relevant stakeholders, including businessmen, trade chambers leaders and officials from Bangladesh Bank and Fire Service. The meeting was called by the Industries Ministry.
During the nearly three-hour meeting, the industries minister said, “We will not care about the traditional rules of government for the relocation. This is a state emergency." Pointing to non-cooperation and failure of different government agencies and divisions in taking proper actions for the relocation, he said, “Every time people will die, we will hold meetings and deliver speeches. I don't want this anymore.”
Addressing the meeting participants, he then said, “Don't confine yourself to government papers only” and asked the authorities concerned to ensure a faster relocation of the warehouses. Many of the participants suggested removal of the warehouses and factories within next three months. “But it's not possible to do so overnight. So, we have decided to complete the relocation within the next six months,” Humayun said afterwards.
Meanwhile, Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) Mayor Sayeed Khokon said a taskforce would launch a month-long drive on February 28 to remove warehouses of “dangerous chemicals” from Old Dhaka, including Chawkbazar.
"Utility services like power, water and gas connections of the risky buildings will be cut and remain shut until the taskforce gives No Objection Certificate [NOC],” said Khokon, adding the drive would continue till April 1. He also asked different government intelligence departments and organisations to monitor whether anyone was storing risky chemicals at any buildings.
The DSCC mayor also called upon the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) and the Department of Explosives to strongly monitor fitness of gas cylinders that are used in vehicles as well as for commercial and residential purposes.
Even the Inspector General of Police Javed Patwary joined in, saying police were taking the matter very seriously. “We will give maximum support to the taskforce…. None will be spared this time.”
This time, maybe they do mean it. Maybe we will see some effective action taken at last, this time. We certainly hope so, and must do all we can to make sure. But let’s not forget that for at least 69 souls, ‘this time’ is already too late.