On November 25, At least 55 shanties were gutted after a fire broke out at a slum in Mirpur's Kalshi area
Dhaka slums have long been plagued by electrical fires, and the issue has come into the limelight once again after three back-to-back fires at slums last week.
On November 25, At least 55 shanties were gutted after a fire broke out at a slum in Mirpur's Kalshi area.
Just a day earlier, a fire had broken out in Johuri Moholla slum near Bihari Patti in Dhaka’s Mohammadpur. The day before that, around 100 shanties and small makeshift shops were destroyed in a fire which originated at the “Sattola Bosti” in Dhaka’s Mohakhali area.
There have been at least 30 fire incidents at slums in Dhaka this year, according to data compiled by Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence. Although short circuits in illegal and poorly set-up electrical connections have been blamed for most of the fire incidents, the authorities are yet to come up with an effective solution to the problem.
On Saturday, Fire Service Director General Brig Gen Md Sazzad Hussain told Dhaka Tribune: “The power authorities set up some wire connections and many slum dwellers take illegal electricity connections from the original connections. These illegal connections use poor cables, making the connections faulty and risky.
“There are irregularities and lax monitoring helps them to continue. We train volunteers and conduct drills in slums, but that is of little help if the people do not become aware,” added the fire service DG.
Who is to blame?
During a visit to some slums in Dhaka early this month, this correspondent found illegal connections with poor wires, including at Kalyanpur and Karail.
This correspondent also found poor gas connections with plastic pipes in the two slums.
Usually, a person needs a permanent residence to get a utility connection. Slum dwellers do not have permanent residence in the slum areas and should not be able to get a connection.
It has been alleged that unscrupulous government officials in collaboration with some utility service providing officials continue to make crores by supplying illegal utility connections in the slums.
Top officials of Power Distribution Company Limited and Dhaka Electric Supply Company (DESCO) claimed electric short circuits are not always the core reason behind the fires.
DESCO Managing Director Md Kausar Ameer Ali said there are many limitations in providing electric connections to the slums because of the cramped spaces, but the authorities do have control over the connections they provide.
Major slums in DNCC
Major slums in DSCC
Sher e Bangla Nagar
“However, sometimes unscrupulous groups do take illegal gas connections. But we are concerned about why the fires in slums are spreading too fast. It is not short circuits that can always be blamed. Fire can take place anywhere, but authorities should make sure that flammable things are not stored in slums to avoid casualties and fast spread of fire,” he said.
The ways people live in slums makes it tough for monitoring connections, he claimed.
“We are working on introducing a pre-payment system in the slums which will be helpful for both users and authorities to ensure safe and secured connection in slums,” he said.
DESA Managing Director Bikash Dewan said electric related accidents are taking place because of illegal connections and lack of sufficient earthing.
“Some of the slums are very congested and are developed in unplanned ways. Supplying electricity connections to the cramped areas is always risky. Along with suppliers, the users also have to act cautiously to avoid any casualties,” he said.
Safe, affordable housing for poor needed
Speaking to Dhaka Tribune, an urban expert has demanded that the government plan affordable and safe housing for slum dwellers.
People from rural areas come to Dhaka after losing their ancestral land due to river erosion and poverty, among other reasons, and take shelter in densely populated slums, he said.
In Dhaka and elsewhere, slum dwellers live in dilapidated, cramped, poorly ventilated, makeshift, and unclean conditions. Local Government Minister Tazul Islam in June 2019 told parliament that around 646,000 people live in Dhaka’s 3,394 slums.
Among the slums, 1,639 with 499,011 people are under Dhaka North city Corporation, while 1,755 slums with 147,056 people are under Dhaka South City Corporation.
Slum fires in Dhaka Division
Number of fire incidents
2020 (Only in Dhaka city)
Source: Fire Service and Civil Defence
“We are not planning affordable housing for low income people. They are paying higher rent and costs per square feet in Dhaka, but the places they live are most vulnerable to fire,” said Adil Mohammad Khan, professor of urban planning at Jahangirnagar University and general secretary of the Bangladesh Institute of Planners.
“Most slum dwellers live in houses made of bamboo and wood, with narrow entrances. Slum dwellers usually pay higher than many middle-class people for housing but are deprived of all kinds of civic amenities,” he added.
“The amount they pay for house rent, water, gas, sanitation and security seems to be smaller but it is too high in terms of the services and facilities they enjoy. Moreover, they live in unhealthy environments,” the professor further said.
He suggested the government provide land and engage private sector stakeholders to develop houses where low income people can live in formal or semi formal arrangements in 200-400 square feet apartments.
As a short-term solution, he called on city corporations to develop evacuation spaces in all slums, so that people can take shelter and avoid casualties in case of an incident.
“People in slums are basically living in bombs if there is a fire. We need innovative approaches to fight such disasters. It takes time for fire service teams to arrive if there is an incident, so maybe the authorities can provide extinguishers for slum dwellers to douse the fire immediately,” he said.
Power and electric authorities should have proper mechanisms for illegal connections. Fire services should train volunteers at slums as first responders, added Khan.