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24 February, 2019 10:40:46 AM

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Chawkbazar carnage and not learning from past tragedies

Accidents definitely can and will happen but loss of lives must be minimised
Syed Mehdi Momin
Chawkbazar carnage and not learning from past tragedies

For the first time in 67 years the events of Amar Ekushey was overshadowed by the horrific inferno at the Chawkbazar area in the old quarters of the city sent shockwaves throughout the country on February 21. The fire claimed dozens of lives.

Property worth crores of taka was burnt to ashes. However, actually it was a tragedy waiting to happen. Gas cylinders are potential bombs. With the rapidly increasing use of these gas cylinders, the potential of accidents increases. A number of explosions have occurred in the recent years. A disaster of this magnitude should not have been totally unexpected. And what is more tragic is the fact that this latest incident can’t be termed as a wakeup call. The wakeup call was given way back in 2010 when another inferno at the Nimtoli area in the old city claimed at least 123 lives and left hundreds injured. And yet again in 2012 when the Tazrin garment fire claimed 111 lives.  Even after nearly a decade  many people of the locality are yet to recover from the after effects of the tragedy. If the past is anything to go by a similar fate awaits the residents of Chawkbazar.
As a matter of fact the characteristics of both Nimtoli and Chawkbazar are eerily similar. Leave alone the source for a moment the fire spread in the same manner. The same set of circumstances were present this time too. The causes are also same. Actually the number of chemical warehouses must have been increased in the last nine years. Rather ironically just a day before the Chawkbazar carnage, the Dhaka South City mayor declared that the licenses of all establishments that store flammable chemicals would be revoked. Within 24 hours the heart of the old quarters of the sprawling city became the scene yet another horrific event that reminds us of the constant hazards with which Dhakaiites are living.

In the immediate aftermath of Nimtali inferno experts, NGOs and common people raised a logical demand that storage of such potential deadly substances in residential areas should be banned. The government for once acted promptly and fixed a cut-off date asking the traders to shift the warehouses from the area. Unfortunately in reality little was done to change the situation.

Learning from tragedies seems to alien to our culture. The old town remains as unsafe as ever for the inhabitants. Localities like Nabab Katra, Bangshal, Siddique Bazar, Sat Rowza, Babu Bazar, Armanitola still have factories with flammable objects stored on their ground floors. Immediately after the incident the authorities did carry out drives for four days sealing off 25 chemical warehouses. However that was about it. The sealed off warehouses are open now and the number of such establishment are about the same now as was the case three years back. Only a few of the warehouses were relocated to Fatullah, Narayanganj. In Chawkbazar too stored chemicals made the bad situation much worse.

There is a death trap in old part of the city. Either there is an open sewerage line where a pedestrian may fall, or uneven road pavements creating challenges for users or low electric wires that are perilously close to people walking on the road. Many roads do not have fluorescent signs to warn a motor bike rider or a car driver of a ditch ahead. In case of fire, those locked in multi- storied buildings are often left at the mercy of their fate.  In the Chawkbazaar fire, a pregnant woman and her husband could not come down because the building in which they were living did not have any fire or emergency exit.

In monsoon, the roads often go under water increasing the possibility of accidents. Add to this the conversion of many old houses into small chemical storing warehouses plus the reckless use of gas cylinders.

Accidents definitely can and will happen but loss of lives must be minimised. According to Professor Jamilur Reza Chowdhury there are adequate legislations to prevent the fire incidents. "The laws related to building construction and fire safety is adequate. What is missing is enforcement." The must be strict  enforcement of building construction act, Bangladesh National Building Code, fire prevention act, building rules, and Dhaka City Corporation ordinance to prevent such tragedy from being repeated.  Educating people about disaster risks, and being alert about dangerous situations - could probably go a long way towards preventing the next disaster. However we do not see any concentrated approach to raise awareness among the populace.

Fires in residences and especially factories are a common phenomenon in Bangladesh. The Tazreen Garment fire is stilled remembered with great sadness. Just recently in Cattogram several lives were lost in a fire incident. Many garment workers have been killed in factory fires.  From now onwards Bangladeshis will observe two momentous tragedies on the 21st of February As the authorities and the management are not doing enough to prevent residential and workplace fires the onus seems to be on the workers and residents themselves.

Experts believe that certain procedures can help a lot in dealing with fires. Avoiding clutter definitely helps. Clutter contributes to death and injuries by preventing access to exits and emergency equipment. Electrical hazards must be reported promptly. Many fires start in faulty wiring and malfunctioning electrical equipment. Sprinklers and firefighting equipment or emergency exits should never be blocked. If development agencies cannot help then the government can ask big corporate houses to unite to provide separate fire service facilities to slums. If vulnerable areas across the country have small fire stations funded and supported either by development bodies or by corporate giants, safety levels of residents will go up considerably.  Unfortunately, with the blessing of political godfathers, many unlawful activities go on with very little attention given to the safety and security of commoners.

The government has to firmly sever all ties with elements that exploit political relations and immediately order all district administrations to provide safety equipment at slums.  Chemicals must be used and stored safely. Adequate ventilation when using and storing these substances must be in place. More importantly residential areas are no places for chemical godowns.  The authorities have declared support for victims but it should also form a body to take some visible and effective steps to improve fire safety. As a first step, all shops, restaurants and warehouses must be forced to buy and install extinguishers.

We end this article with some tips for residents to prevent fires

Make a fire escape plan with two ways out of the house, plus a designated meeting place once out of the house. Practice the fire escape plan regularly.

Keep an emergency ladder on upper floors of your home in the event of a fire. Keep the ladder in or near the room of an adult or older child capable of using it.

Make sure you have a smoke alarm on every level of your home and in each bedroom. Test smoke alarms monthly and remember to change the batteries twice a year.

Replace smoke alarms that are past their warranty date.

Install a fire extinguisher in the kitchen and know how to use it.

Get rid of equipment and appliances with old or frayed cords and extension cords that look damaged. Bind excess cord from lamps or other electrical equipment with a twist-tie to prevent injury from chewing on cords. You also can purchase a holder or spool specially designed to hide extra cord.

Position television and stereo equipment against walls so small hands don't have access to the back surfaces or cords.

Bind any excess cord and unplug lights when they're not in use.

Check electronic toys frequently for signs of wear and tear; any object that sparks, feels hot, or smells unusual must be repaired or discarded immediately.

Choose sleepwear that's labeled flame-retardant (either polyester or treated cotton). Cotton sweatshirts or pants that aren't labeled as sleepwear generally aren't flame-retardant.

Make sure older kids are especially careful when using irons or curling irons.

Make sure any nightlights aren't touching fabric like bedspreads or curtains.

Keep electric space heaters at least 3 feet (91 centimeters) from beds, curtains, or anything flammable

Keep matches, lighters, chemicals, and lit candles out of kids' reach.

Don't smoke inside, especially when you're tired, taking medication that can cause you to be drowsy, or in bed.

Don't run electrical wires under rugs or carpet.

Don't overload electrical sockets.

The writer is Senior Assistant Editor of The Independent

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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