The perpetrators allegedly include 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.
The victims claim that the fire could be a fresh attempt to evict them from the land, referring to previous eviction attempts by different government agencies with the help of the ruling party supporters, as the government wants to establish an ICT village there,
Talking to the Dhaka Tribune, a community-based organisation (CBO) leader in the slum said that some of the culprits also have ties with with HM Ershad’s Jatiya Party and the BNP.
“They have always been acting against the interests of the slum people to free the land in the hopes of getting flats in the rehabilitation project proposed by the government,” the leader said, seeking anonymity, but refused to name the leaders of the Awami League, BNP and Jatiya Party.
He said: “Every slum leaders here are related to the top three political parties, one way or another. A syndicate comprises of these people collects extortion money from the tenants here. They have made a lot lot of fortunes, in cash and properties, through this. Their main agenda is to motivate 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 on Thursday, this Dhaka Tribune correspondent spoke to at least a dozen people of the slum echoing the CBO leader. They referred freedom fighter Md Idris Khan, a leader of the local Awami League and Korail bazar committee, as they said he has knowledge about things such as the latest fire and government plans.
If anyone lives in an abandoned land 10 to 12 years, he or she becomes an owner of the land. We have been living here for more than 30 years. Where will we go now? Should we go to the jungle?
Idris owns 24 tin-shed rooms in Boubazar area in the Korail slum, but all of his establishments were burnt to ashes during the fire.
When contacted, the 62-year-old denied his involvement in politics and the bazar committee.
“The latest fire was a conspiracy; it was not an accident.
“The government does not want us to live here. They have 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 claimed that the same gang had torched the slum once earlier this year.
The Korail slum houses thousands of poor people engaged in different sectors including garments, transportation, construction, land development, waste management and small industries. But the government never took any effective step to ensure better living for these people.
“Had the government arranged any alternative to our livelihood and residence, we would have believed that the government was sympathetic towards us. I think the government should clear its stance about us.” Idris said.
Replying to another query, Idris Ali brushed aside the government proposal for rehabilitation to an alternative location.
“If anyone lives in an abandoned land 10 to 12 years, he or she becomes an owner of the land. We have been living here for more than 30 years. Where will we go now? Should we go to the jungle?
“For instance, the government wants us to move us to Gazipur. But what will we do there? Will we chop woods and sell in the local market? No, it's not possible,” he said.
Origin of fire still unclear
The slum dwellers provided inconsistent accounts of the source of fire. Some claimed that the fire had initiated from a gas stove at a local tea-stall. Another group of locals alleged that it had originated from a shop named Samad Bedding Store on Boubazar Road, owned by Samad Khan, a businessman from Gopalganj.
Samad was visiting his Gopalganj ancestral place on the day of the fire, according to locals.
According to another version, Rakib, the owner of a studio in the same area, went to Samad’s shop on the day. He left the shop immediately after throwing a lit cigarette in a sack full of cotton that allegedly caused the fire.
Rakib, however, refuted the allegation when contacted. The law enforcers have not arrested anyone in connection with the fire.
Fire Service and Civil Defence Deputy Director Showkat Hassan binned the allegations that the ruling party men had been behind the fire to help the government evict the slum dwellers.
“Some people are spreading rumours against the government. This is rubbish ... Had there been any conspiracy or plot, the fire would have originated from multiple points. Why will the government commit such a criminal act?
“The fire originated from a bedding store,” he claimed.
Showkat, also chief of the three-member investigation committee to look into the fire, said that a probe report will be submitted to the authorities concerned by December 12.
Ban on boats was the beginning?
The residents of Korail slum have been in fear of eviction since learning about the government's plan of recovering the land to beef up security in the wake of the July 1 Gulshan terror attack.
The ICT Division has plans to set up a high-tech park under the Private Sector Development Support Project in the 19-hectare land of the slum.
The slum people have gone through several eviction attempts by the government in the form of disconnection of utility services.
The World Bank and the Department for International Development (DFID) are funding the high-tech park project.
According to the 2011 census, around 40,700 people live in Korail, the biggest slum in Dhaka.
A report of the Economic Empowerment of the Poorest (EEP) published in 2012 shows that more than 20,000 families reside in Korail.
The previous fire incident of March destroyed over 50 shanties and injured several people.
‘Korail fire pre-planned’
A senior leader of the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) alleged the fire at Korail slum was part of a conspiracy to evict the dwellers.
During a visit to the slum on Thursday, CPB Adviser Manzurul Ahsan Khan told the Dhaka Tribune that local criminals backed by the ruling party had set fire to the slum.
“Such conspiracies will not be successful. If the government wants to shift the slum people, they should arrange their rehabilitation first. And the police must find the criminals and take legal action against them,” he added.
Addressing the ruling Awami League leaders, Gonoforum President Dr Kamal Hossain said: “Now stop plundering, using the party name. Try to work for the poor and slum people.”
The veteran politician said that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had always been a friend of the poor. “You [AL leaders and supporters] should follow his path.
“I took stand in favour of the slum people during the tenure of the government of HM Ershad. If the incumbent government takes further attempts to evict the Korail people without rehabilitation, I will take further legal steps against any illegal action of the government,” Dr Kamal said.