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Were the Dhaka slum fires arson?

  • Published at 12:36 am December 24th, 2016
  • Last updated at 12:37 am December 24th, 2016
Were the Dhaka slum fires arson?
Residents of Korail and Sattola slums are convinced that the fires that took place in their areas earlier this month within a week of each other were not accidents. Although there is no evidence to suggest that this is true and the Fire Service has said it found no signs of arson, the slum dwellers and organisations working within those communities are not convinced. They point to the past incidents of fire in these slums, as well as fires in several of Dhaka’s slums that were eventually demolished. This, coupled with the knowledge that the government plans to acquire and build on these properties, has left the residents in a state of constant fear. Not only locals but members of Community Based Organisations (CBOs), civil society members and other politicians have come up with the same allegations. This correspondent visited the Sattola slum where a fire burned down several shanties on December 12 and spoke to locals who claimed there was a conspiracy afoot against them. One local named Ajmol said: “Some vested interests instructed evicted youngsters from the slum to set fire to the Brac School. During the tenure of the previous government such conspiracy also had created aim to evict the poor community, but they failed. “Fire has been set seven times in Sattola slum before.” He claimed the fire was set suddenly in a vast area of the northwest part of Brac School. Sattola slum central CBO Chairperson Selina Begum alleged that the fire at the slum was planned. “A few culprits in the slum area are always ready to do anything for their personal gains,” she said. The government planned to establish a hospital in the place of Sattola slum, Selina said. She said she believed that the fire and other incidents of harassment were attempts to evict the dwellers of the slum. “Already the mayor of Dhaka North City Corporation Mayor Annisul Huq has discussed with us how to rehabilitate us to another place,” the CBO leader said. Khondkar Rebeka Sun-Yat, executive director of Coalition for the Urban Poor (CUP), claimed the authorities concerned and their associates have a history of resorting to such illegal and inhumane tactics to evict the slums. Pointing to the previous government’s failure in rehabilitating the residents of Bhashantek and BNP slums, Rebeka said: “The government gave the construction job to a developer company to build apartments for the rehabilitation of Bhashantek slum people. That company hired criminals to evict the residents of the slum.” In reply to a query, she said: “Such criminal activities – setting fire, threatening by goons and forceful eviction – are common practices in our country.” She argued the government agencies and the developers always try for how to reduce the number for slum people before rehabilitation for achieved extra profit. “At the time of eviction of Bhashantek slum and BNP slum, hired goons had raped teenage girls and women in those places,” she claimed. Rebeka further said that no government had taken the steps to investigate the crimes carried out during these evictions. “Already a developer company has signed a deal for constructions of the Mohakhali ICT village. I am requesting Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to pay attention to this issue. Otherwise the fate of the Korail and Sattola slum residents might be the same as those of Bhashantek and BNP slums,” she said. After the Korail fire, which took place on December 4, similar allegations were raised against the government and ruling party along with several BNP and Jatiya Party men. The perpetrators allegedly included some “opportunistic leaders” of the ruling Awami League and its associate bodies for the devastating fire that razed over 500 shanties affecting around 1,000 families on December 4 – the second fire incident in nine months. Talking to the Dhaka Tribune, a community-based organisation leader in the slum said these political leaders “have always been acting against the interests of the slum people to free the land in hopes of getting flats in the rehabilitation project proposed by the government.” The leader, who sought to remain unnamed, said: “Every slum leader here is related to the top three political parties, one way or another. A syndicate comprising of these people collects extortion money from the tenants here. They have made a lot of fortune in cash and properties, through this. Their main agenda is to get the slum people to leave the place. “I have no doubt that the government will acquire the land very soon.” During a visit to the slum, this correspondent spoke to at least a dozen people of the slum echoing the CBO leader. Some named Md Idris Khan, a leader of the local Awami League and Korail bazar committee. Idris owned 24 tin-shed rooms in Boubazar area in the Korail slum, had all of his establishments burnt to ashes during the fire. When contacted, the man denied his involvement but said he too believed that the fire was an arson. “The government does not want us to live here. It has plans to establish an ICT park; they recently banned boats in Gulshan Lake and blocked all the connecting roads to the slum; repeated attempts have been made to evict the slum dwellers since 2012,” he said. Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune, Fire Service and Civil Defence Deputy Director Showkat Hassan dismissed the allegations of arson. “Had there been any conspiracy or plot, the fire would have originated from multiple points,” he remarked. A previous fire in Korail in March destroyed over 50 shanties and injured several people. Before this there were major fires in Korail in 2010 and 2004.