Massive fires have gutted several plastic factories in old Dhaka and a slum of about 3,000 shanties in Mirpur on Wednesday and Friday respectively. The types of the two fire incidents are fundamentally different. The old part of Dhaka City is literally sitting on powder kegs -one that waits for the slightest incendiary to trigger an inferno. Nimtoli, Badamtoli and Churihatta tragedies bear witness to this. The fire at plastic factories comes barely six months after the devastating Churihatta fire in which as many as 73 people perished. It is the warehouses of inflammable chemicals or raw materials that are responsible for intensifying fires to the proportion of an inferno in the old part. This time the fire at the plastic factories has mercifully not left casualties because workers were away on the occasion of Eid-ul-Azha leave.
If the fear of fires in old Dhaka lurks around the corner, so does it in every slum but in a different context. When as many as 3.8 million people huddle together in different slums where shanties are more or less a makeshift arrangement, scant regards are paid to the safety of whatever little utility services are available there. Allegedly, electricity, water and gas connections are provided illegally. Many do not have power connections and have to rely on open lanterns. For cooking purposes, some have to use gas stoves and gas cylinders. In shanties, such arrangements are always potentially dangerous. The shanties are constructed with bamboo or wooden poles, plastic sheets and materials that easily catch fire. Moreover, those are so close by that once one is in flame, the fire spreads in no time across the entire length and breadth of a slum. Also approach roads to such slums are so narrow and inaccessible that fire fighting units find it difficult to negotiate those.
In a situation like this, when fire breaks out in a slum usually people lose all their belongings. First, they must save their lives. Also the timing of the fire matters. Loss of life or property depends on the time fire breaks out. If working people are away in their work places, babies or small children are at risk of getting consumed in the fire. Accidental fires apart, intrigues working behind slum economy can lead to arsons in order to evict slum-dwellers. The sprawling slums in Agargaon and Kawran Bazar are no more. Years ago hired goons once committed the most outrageous carnage by throwing back two or three slum-dwellers into the razing fire at Agargaon.
This is not high summer and therefore it is unlikely to trigger slum fires so often. But now around 20,000 inhabitants of the Mirpur slum find themselves not only without a shelter but also nothing to fall back upon. Although the mayor of Dhaka North City Corporation has claimed schools have been turned into temporary shelters for them, they cannot stay there long because it is almost time for the reopening of educational institutions. If Dhaka has to continue as a vibrant city, it must tackle the problem of fire in old Dhaka and at its slums. There is no alternative to shifting chemical godowns and plastic factories from residential areas in old Dhaka. In the same way, making arrangement for slum-dwellers to gradually move to low-cost housing may solve the problem of Dhaka's low-income groups.