Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence compiled dataset showed that fire incidents across the country in 2019 rose by 22.5 per cent to 24,074, compared to 19,642 in 2018, causing a loss of Tk 330.41 crore. One-third of the fire incidents occurred at households mainly due to electrical short circuit. Rapid urbanisation and careless use of electric equipment are among the major reasons behind the rise in fire incidents. Of the last year fire incidents, 39 per cent was caused by an electrical short circuit and 18 per cent by stove fire. The number of causalities also went up last year. At least 185 people lost their lives and 586 people were injured in fire incidents, while the death toll was 130 in 2018. In Chawkbazar, 70 people were charred when fire engulfs the chemical warehouse in the old city, and in Banani FR Tower fire, 25 people were killed while scores of people were seriously injured. The government after any major fire incident make the promise of building inspection and installing fire compliance, however, eventually, the promises fade away when media focus shifts.
After the Chawkbazar fire, Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader said the government cannot avoid its responsibility. Undeniably, the tragedy was the sheer negligence to the learning from the Nimtali tragedy which took off 124 lives in 2010 inferno. It had sparked a public outcry, demanding relocation of chemical warehouses and stores from the area, but little has been done before Chawkbazar inferno. After the Chawkbazar fire, we witness 22-storey Banani FR Tower fire that put off 25 lives. Like FR Tower, most high-rise buildings in Dhaka lack fire safety measures, which can cause high causalities in case of a fire. Currently, there are about 4,000 high-rises in Dhaka, mostly in the new parts and the posh areas of the capital. Most high-rise buildings have been built in violation of the original design. In the original design, the owners show proper fire safety measures, but during construction, they deviate from the plan.
Apart from the Nimtali to Chawkbazar fire, regular factory fire, high-rises fire, our eyes caught in regular slum fire across the country, particularly in Dhaka, where around 4,000 slums harbour millions of low-income people. The living condition of the low-income people is not secured in terms of basic services, housing, and health, sanitation and hygiene facilities etc. Fire is a common man-made disaster in the slums that make the dwellers’ life miserable. The FSCD data revealed that in 2019, a total of 174 fire incidents happened in slums across the country, whereas 31 fire incident happened in Dhaka, 46 in Chottagram, and the highest number 95 fire reported in Rangpur. Of the slum fire in Dhaka, 87 shanties and 14 shops gutted in Mirpur slum fire on 26 December 2019.
In Bhatara Balur Math slum on the day before Eid-ul-Fitr in June, fire razed 100 shanties and blurred their Eid happiness. In August, Mirpur’s Chalantika slum become ravaged when fire engulfs entire slums. The fire made 1200 shacks into ashes within hours and made around 3000 dwellers without shelter when most of the dwellers were away from their home for Eid-ul-Azha vacation. In December 2016, a fire broke out in the city’s biggest Korail slum that gutted more than 500 houses making around 2000 people hapless. After three months of the fire, on 16 March 2017, another fire broke out in Korail slum when at least 4,000 families lost their home, almost entire slum stretched in 0.36 kilometre become ravaged by the fire. Around 500 shanties were burnt in the March fire, while the affected slum dwellers claimed that the number was closer to 3,000. However, no serious human casualties were reported in connection with the incident except injuries received by some of the slum people and rescuers when trying to douse the blaze and relocating the properties.
After the Korail fire, BRAC and some other NGOs came up with an emergency response, distributed relief and then rebuilt the gutted house. BRAC Urban Development Programme, World Vision and UNDP took some preventive measures, like fire safety awareness campaign, fire detection sensor installation, fire extinguishers, AFO balls, road network development, community drill, settlement mapping, waste management campaign etc.
The existing physical, economic and social vulnerabilities of slum residents make them highly susceptible to disasters often resulting in loss of lives and assets. Unplanned city growth and poor infrastructure make it challenging for relevant authorities to respond and manage urban slum fires. Fire, particularly in slums, are common because of the typically flammable building materials in slums, fires ignite and spread easily, especially during the hot dry season and winter season. It is also noted that because of the high density, firefighting and evacuation are very difficult and it is common for slum residents to lose household assets and belongings.
Various reports also suggest that such fires are intentionally lit to evict slum residents, or are a result of feuds between rival groups for establishing supremacy. It is also a considerable fact that local goons who control such slums on regular payment of rent may have their hands to evacuate the land to force dwellers to renegotiate their right to dwelling with fresh advances. Powerful people may also be involved in such arson to make the slum empty to sell land or build new shopping or residential housings. In most cases, it is the powerful people holding such land under their possession in the city renting to slum dwellers. They drive them away when it is so needed and setting the fire is the most common practice to evacuate the land.
BFSCD is the legitimate authority responsible for mitigating fire hazards, rescuing people, training community volunteers and providing first aid to the affected people. Even if fire stations are nearby, given Dhaka’s incessant traffic congestions and narrow roads in slums, it proves almost impossible for fire wagons to reach the site on time. It takes 10 minutes to even120 minutes for BFSCD to reach both in Kallyanpur and Karail.
BFSCD is also characterised by weak equipment, poor technology and inadequate manpower. Despite the drawback, it has 18 fire stations in the city and an average of 35 firefighters in each station. However, backdated organogram of BFSCD, the increased population coupled with limited enforcement of building construction rules or regulations and unplanned growth of urban centres and the increasing number of slums resulted in an acute risk of fire incidents in Dhaka city. Social welfare and Slum Development Department of Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) also looks after the housing and shelter for the slum and squatter dwellers and takes care of urban disasters like as fire hazards and other critical issues in its areas. However, considering the emerging need for increasing fire preparedness in the slum areas, they have limited capacity.
In our view, the city corporation should redesign the slum area, widen the community roads, regularise the gas and electricity connection, bring the slums under regular fire inspection, and slowly but steadily transform the slums into low-cost housing facility, like once Bhashantek low-cost apartment project for urban poor. For increasing fire preparedness, experts opined, conventional smoke detectors are not suitable in slum environments due to the smoke generated by cooking, businesses and burning litter. Therefore, up until now slum fire risk reduction activities have focused on behaviour change, emergency planning, and risk minimisation in Bangladesh. However, to date, there have been no suitable early warning systems that enable a rapid communitywide response.
Abdullah Zobair is a development worker and social research enthusiast. He can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org