Without thorough investigations into the causes of slum fires, it is unlikely that things will improve
After a 57-minute delay by first responders and a three-hour fight Saturday night against flames that razed more than a 100 dwellings to the ground, the residents of Bhatara Balur Math slum in Dhaka have little to celebrate this Eid.
Locals said they had lost everything in the fire that broke out around 10pm Saturday.
The question is: Why do slum fires recur with such deadly regularity?
Experts and slum residents have called for thorough investigations into slum fires.
“From the types of fires it did not seem that these are just accidents,” Poribesh Bachao Andolon chairman, Abu Naser Khan, said, adding: “There can be two reasons behind these incidents - one is that they are accidents and the other is that they are planned by groups who want to occupy the land by evicting residents.
“There should be proper investigations into these fire incidents. Otherwise, doubts will remain.”
Previous infernos have been on an even larger scale – a recent Mirpur slum fire destroyed 40 times as many dwellings as the Bhatara Balur Math slum fire.
On March 12, as many as 4,000 shanties were gutted in a devastating fire at Ilias Mollah slum in the Mirpur area of Dhaka.
Slum dwellers were safely evacuated, but could not save their belongings. Houses of tin and bamboo were reduced to ashes within minutes, shocked slum residents told the Dhaka Tribune.
Pallabi police station OC Dadon Fakir said the fire may have broken out accidentally.
“That is why nobody has filed a case over it. If a case is not filed, it is not possible to know the reason,” he said.
Although fires break out in slums at regular intervals, cases are usually only filed if there are casualties. The police do not always file charge sheets, so no one is ultimately held responsible for these incidents.
Allegations of arson linger after every incident but are rarely definitively settled.
“All the clues of the crime are damaged by the fire [so] it is difficult to identify criminals,” Police Headquarters Assistant Inspector General (Media) Sahely Fardous told the Dhaka Tribune.
“Investigations take time to determine the reasons [and] besides, there are no CCTV cameras in the slums, so it is very difficult to find out the criminals.”
Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence authorities told the Dhaka Tribune that their duty is to determine the causes of fires. But they add that it is the duty of law enforcers to determine if the incidents were the result of arson or sabotage.
According to the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence, the loss to tenants in goods and lives has been very high.
Last year, 254 fire incidents took place nationwide. One person was killed while losses were estimated at about Tk3 crore.
As many as 170 slum fire incidents occurred across the country in 2016. One person was killed and losses in these blazes were estimated at about Tk4 crore.
In 2015, there were 75 slum fires recorded across the country, but the number of incidents of fire increased in the slums of the capital. Three people were killed in 47 fire incidents in Dhaka alone, and losses were estimated at Tk1 crore.
In 2014, 624 incidents of fire took place in slums across the country, killing as many as 14 people and causing losses estimated at Tk24 crore.
The previous year, in 2013, 74 incidents of slum fire broke out across the country. Losses in these incidents were estimated at nearly Tk8 crore.
Fire Service and Civil Defence Director General Brig Gen Ali Ahmed Khan said: “The slums are unplanned and most have illegal electricity connections. These connection materials are of low quality; most of the fires break out due to short circuits. The use of stoves with illegal gas connections in the slums is also a cause of fire.
“But we cannot ignore the enmity between two parties over the occupation of land.”
This reporter spoke to slum dwellers in Mirpur, Bhasantek, Mohakhali’s Korail and Sat Tala, Mohammadpur Bashbari and the Karwan Bazar railway tracks.
Residents, asking not to be named, told the Dhaka Tribune that the causes behind the fire incidents were land grabbing, financial interest and political purposes.
Prof AKM Abul Kalam of the department of urban and regional planning at Jahangirnagar University said: “The slum dwellers do not set the fires themselves. Apart from accidents, there may be fire incidents due to the involvement of interested parties. That cannot be ignored.
“The slum dwellers, who belong to working class, contribute a lot to the country’s economy. The government should formulate a policy to rehabilitate them so they can live better.”
Slum dwellers told the Dhaka Tribune that although some residents leave after a fire, vacant lots are soon rented out.