Thousands of people in the old part of the capital are still living amid risk of life as many residential and commercial buildings are being used as chemical factories and warehouses in the area.
Explosive experts said chemical factories, warehouses and shops, which are running illegally in old Dhaka, have put the public safety at risk.Chemical warehouses or factories are the sources of most of the fire incidents there, according to the Fire Service and Civil Defense.
According to environmentalist groups, there are over 2,000 chemical factories and warehouses in Old Dhaka and most of them are running illegally.
Talking to the daily sun, Poribesh Bachao Andolon (POBA) chairman Abu Naser Khan said that in the last nine years there was no visible attempts to remove those illegal chemical factories and warehouses from Old Dhaka.
He said Bangladesh Environment Protection Act, 1995 does not permit anyone to run chemical factory or warehouse in residential areas but around 2,000 chemical warehouse and factories are operating illegally in the area.
The green activist said the chemical factories, warehouses and shops will have to be relocated from old Dhaka while explosive materials will have to be sold through authorised shops in the area for ensuring public safety.According to some residents of old Dhaka, the chemical warehouses and stores are mostly located in Agamasi Lane, Shaheednagar, Siddique Bazar, Islambagh, Babubazar, Imamganj, Armanitola, Mitford, Chawkbazar, Nabab Katra, Moghultuli, Bangshal, and Sat Rowza areas.
If anyone goes to old Dhaka, they will see unplanned storage of inflammable chemical and its use in different small factories.
Flammable chemicals are stored on the ground floor of many residential buildings, blurring the difference between residential and industrial spaces and posing a high risk of accident.
The picture, however, is now different at Nimtoli. No chemical warehouses or stores are there in the narrow stretch of the road, as local traders relocated their shops after the devastating fire at Nimtoli.
The Wednesday’s fire at Chawkbazar that claimed over 70 lives appeared to be the repetition of the 2010 Nimtoli tragedy that had killed over 120 people while chemical warehouses in crammed neighbourhoods emerged as the culprit in both the cases.
Visibly originating from chemical and plastic warehouses near Chawkbazar’s Shahi Mosque the fire ripped quickly through densely populated neighbourhood.
In June 2010, more than 120 people were burnt to death and 50 others injured in an identical manner at Nimtoli of the crowded old Dhaka and it was a plastic factory responsible for quick spread of fire.
The incident at that time sparked a public outcry, demanding the relocation of chemical warehouses and stores packed with combustible materials from the area and steps too were ordered towards that end.
But the Wednesday night’s incident clearly suggests that the measure were not enough to clean an area where people use their houses for business purposes of such ignitable items for years.
After the Nimtoli fire tragedy, in April 2011, the government decided to shift all chemical warehouses from residential areas to industrial zones in Keraniganj on the outskirts of the capital.
The government had selected 50 acres of land in Keraniganj to shift the chemical factories, but the land development work is yet to be started as the initiative is yet to see light.
The government’s project to relocate chemical warehouses to Keraniganj has been on the back burner for nine years since 2010.
Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) put off renewing trade licences of warehouses based in old Dhaka since 2013.
In 2017, after a fire devastated Gulshan-1 market, DSCC mayor Sayed Khokon announced that chemical factories and depots would be evicted from Dhaka South City area, particularly from old Dhaka.
But Sayeed Khokon on February 12 announced that the trade licences of chemical concerns based in old Dhaka would be renewed. But he said that they will not issue any new licences.
However, Sayeed Khokon on Thursday said no chemical godown will be allowed in the old Dhaka. Tough measures will be taken to remove chemical godowns from old Dhaka.
Relocation project director Saiful Alam said that no steps have yet been taken for the proposed ‘BSCIC Chemical Park’ project at Keraniganj as the office of deputy commissioner of Dhaka did not acquire the needed land despite repeated requests.
In the last fiscal, he said the government set aside Tk 201 crore for relocating 936 chemical concerns on a 50-acre area at Keraniganj. As per the project plan, the relocation facilities were expected to be completed by 2021.
Bangladesh Chemical and Perfumery Merchant Association general secretary Arif Hossain said that businessmen were not against relocation but the relocation project was not ready till now.
“Without rehabilitation, any move against it will harm the industry as well as a huge number of people, who are involved directly or indirectly with the business,” he said.
Bangladesh Acid Merchant Association president Mohammad Ullah expressed doubts over whether the government would be able to complete the facilities to relocate the chemical concerns at Keraniganj by 2021 due to slow pace of the project.
Director of Operations and Maintenance of Fire Service and Civil Defence Maj AKM Shakil Newaz said generating awareness among people is very important so that they do not allow any chemical shop or warehouse in the area.
“It is very difficult to locate this kind of warehouses as they do this business secretly in the area,” he said