It has been nine years since the government undertook efforts to relocate the chemical factories and warehouses in Old Dhaka
In the last three days, many top cabinet members and senior government officials have visited Chawkbazar, where at least 67 people lost their lives in a devastating fire.
Almost all of them made the same promises - relocation of chemical warehouses and factories from the densely populated Old Dhaka within a short time.
But the promises of ‘very soon’ have been made repeatedly by top government officials since the initiative began over eight years ago, after 124 people were killed and scores injured in a fire that started at a chemical store in Nabab Katra neighbourhood in Nimtoli on June 3, 2010.
Several thousand warehouses are still in operation in the old town, illegally storing highly combustible chemical compounds in densely populated areas, putting people's lives at risk. Eight years since the Nimtoli tragedy, the promises of relocation largely remain ignored.
According to an estimate by Bangladesh Poribesh Andolan, there are about 25,000 warehouses of chemical products including 15,000 in residential buildings, although the city corporation has issued licence for only 2,500.
Although the Bangladesh Environment Conservation Rules 1997 does not permit operating factories in and around residential areas, the warehouses are in operation in Armanitola, Babu Bazar, Mitford, Shahidnagar, Islambagh and Chawkbazar areas and are mostly housed in residential buildings.
Old Dhaka residents say they have been trying to get chemical warehouses to move out of residential buildings, but without success.
Most of these warehouse owners have been running business for years – in some cases, for generations – and do not want to leave the area. The building owners are also not keen on kicking them out as they pay high rent.
Are chemicals to blame for Chawkbazar fire?
Shamsul Alam, chief inspector of explosives department, said on Friday that chemical stores housed in the area and some stores of plastic grains housed at the ground floor of Wahid Mansion helped fuel the fire.
Dhaka South City Corporation probe body member and Fire Service Director Lt Col SM Julfique Rahman on Friday said flammable chemicals stored in Churihatta fuelled the fire and caused it to last longer.
He said lighter fluid, other chemicals, cans of deodorants - all highly flammable - helped spread the fire.
However Industries Minister Nurul Majid Mahmud Humayun has claimed that the fire was the result of a liquid petroleum gas (LPG) cylinder explosion in a vehicle, and unrelated to any chemical warehouses.
Chemical Park: Still acquiring land
Just after the Nimtoli tragedy, a Home Ministry committee made 17 recommendations, including moving the chemical factories and warehouses outside Dhaka.
But it took eight years for the authorities to get approval of the project, and how much longer it may take to implement the decision remains a question.
On October 30, 2018, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) approved the project with an estimated cost of Tk201.81 crore, which is scheduled to be implemented by June 2021.
The Industries Ministry on January 3 this year appointed a project director, but no fund has been alloted for the project yet.
Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC), which will implement the project, says it is working on land acquisition in Keraniganj and is expected to get funds from the budget in the next fiscal year.
As per the government’s plan, the BSCIC Chemical Village, to be established in 50 acres of land in Keraniganj, will develop 936 plots for the businesses relocated there.
Project Director Saiful Alam said they are working on land acquisition via district administration authorities and will be able to work faster upon getting funds.
Businesses put blame on BSCIC
Bangladesh Acid Merchants' Association President Mohammad Ullah Palash said they have been sincerely engaged with the relocation process since 2010.
“Two committeeswere formed after the Nimtoli tragedy, the first one for relocation of chemical factories from Dhaka and the second one to define what is flammable or toxic. Although it has been over eight years, no land acquisition has been made yet,” said the businessman, expressing frustration.
According to him, their association at least is willing to relocate to the chemical village at Keraniganj at any time the land is ready.
“We are ready to move, but some businesses who have been based in the old town for generations do not want to relocate. However, it depends on the government how early they want to complete the project,” he said.
Bangladesh Paints, Dyes and Chemical Merchants' Association General Secretary Kamal Ahmed said it depends on BSCIC when the project will be completed, but the body is dillydallying with the process.
“They are just killing time. Those who sell 20 flammable banned items have already been transferred to Keraniganj, but BSCIC was unnecessarily going slow. After the Chawkbazar incident, they are now moving fast to implement the move,” he said, adding that a meeting was held at BSCIC headquarters on Friday and another one has been scheduled for Saturday.
“If they can provide us the land, we are expecting to move to the place as soon as possible,” he added.
Authorities under pressure
After the death of at least 67 people from the massive fire at Chawkbazar on Wednesday night, top government officials are now saying they will work on the relocation plan as a high priority and the factories will be moved to Keraniganj soon.
BSCIC Chairman Md Mostaque Hassan said the process of land acquisition has already started, but it takes six months to a year to get funds.
Mostaque, who took charge of BSCIC on February 14, said the corporation will consider it its highest priority to build the chemical village at Keraniganj and plastic village at Munshiganj.
Dhaka South City Corporation Mayor Sayeed Khokon said no chemical warehouse will be allowed inside Dhaka and steps will be taken to shift chemical stores.This is a statement he has been making since taking office in 2015.
He said drives are underway to evict warehouses and factories and any shops, warehouses. Factories storing any of the 29 flammable chemicals will be sealed along with cancellation of their licences, he said.
Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader on Friday blamed lack of close monitoring at Old Dhaka chemical factories and storehouses as the main reason behind this incident.
After the Nimtoli incident in 2010, the government had evacuated some of chemical factories and storehouses from the area, but they have since come back.
"Despite the hundreds of lives lost in the Nimtoli incident, we did not take any lessons from it.
"Honourable prime minister has instructed Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) to immediately relocate the chemical factories and warehouses operating here," he added.
When asked about any particular deadlines regarding the relocation process, Quader said: "We are yet to set a deadline for the relocation of all kinds of chemical shops and warehouses from this densely populated area. But it will happen soon. "
Industries Minister Nurul Majid Mahmud Humayun's on Thursday said they will sit and will decide on how the relocation will take place to Keraniganj, but it will be 'very soon'.