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One month of Chawkbazar fire: ‘Give us the place to relocate’

  • Published at 11:50 pm March 19th, 2019
Chawkbazar
Authorities search barrels for chemical substances, days after the fire engulfed Churihatta neighbourhood in Chawkbazar on February 20 earlier Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

Chemical warehouse owners in Old Dhaka say they are ready to relocate; house owners want compensation for losing rent

A month after a fire gutted several multi-storey buildings and claimed at least 71 lives, the Churihatta neighbourhood in Chawkbazar, a well-known area in the old part of Dhaka, has yet to overcome the horror of that night – and so do the people who live there. 

Haji Wahed Mansion in Nandan Kumar Lane, where the fire started, still stands tall bearing the marks of the fire. Life is starting to go back to normal in the neighbourhood, but one still stops and takes a moment to contemplate, when one crosses the charred building. 

According to the investigation conducted by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the fire started in the first floor of Haji Wahed Mansion, where a chemical warehouse was located. 

The fire spread so quickly and devastatingly because the buildings all housed chemical warehouses. 

“Here in Chawkbazar, we live with these chemicals,” said Abdul Jabbar, a 72-year-old rice trader who sold rice in front of Wahed Mansion for decades prior to the fire. 

Recalling the night of horror, Jabbar said he would have been a victim, too, had he not left the place only 10 minutes before the fire broke out with an explosion. 

Arif Hossain, general secretary of the Bangladesh Chemical and Perfumery Merchant Association, said all chemical traders in Old Dhaka agreed to move their warehouses from the residential area – as soon as the government started allocating plots to construct the said warehouses.

“We are all ready to relocate. Some of us already have our own warehouses outside the city – in places such as Keraniganj, Gazipur, and the industrial areas in Narayanganj,” Arif told the Dhaka Tribune. 

However, not everyone is able to do so, he pointed out. 

“There are many small traders [in Old Dhaka] who will not be able to relocate their warehouses if the government does not compensate them or provide financial support for relocation,” he added. 

“The cost of building a chemical warehouse with safety arrangement is Tk10-20 lakh. Added to that are the utility connections. Unless all these are ensured, it is impossible for us to relocate,” Arif said. “We cannot just move chemicals from one warehouse to another. If the warehouses are not ready, how can we relocate?”

However, renting out spaces to chemical traders is a major source of income for many house owners in Chawkbazar. 

A resident of Urdu Road, who requested anonymity, said: “My family depends on the money that I earn from the rent I get [from the chemical warehouse owners]. If they relocate their business, what am I going to do? I do not have any other source of income. Renting out my house to families will not bring me the kind of money I get now.” 

The house owner urged the government to formulate an alternative option to earn living for people like him.

‘Fire drill, safety measures necessary’

Both local residents and warehouse owners complained about a lack of management and safety measures by the government for fire prevention.

“The Fire Service has never conducted any drills here,” Arif Hossain told the Dhaka Tribune. “Old Dhaka is home to not just the chemical business, but a lot of other businesses, which amount to around Tk26,000 crore. The chemical market alone is worth Tk800 crore. People in the Old Dhaka market area are not aware of fire safety measures. All the shops there need to have proper fire safety measures.”

Nimai Dutta, proprietor of ND Chemicals in Armanitola, pointed out the lack of knowledge on chemical management and fire safety training. 

“Some businessmen are not aware of chemical management – i.e. what chemical compound should be stored in which manner. Businessmen need to be educated in chemical management. At the same time, warehouses owners also need to know about the safety measures,” he told the Dhaka Tribune, urging for awareness campaigns in Old Dhaka.

The Dhaka Tribune could not reach the Fire Service authorities for a comment on the fire drill, despite making several attempts till 5pm on Tuesday.