Record-high heat waves sweeping across the country in the past week already made the country hot. Repeated fire incidents in markets and shopping malls made it even hotter. It has become a matter of grave concern for the traders, nay the entire business community. In less than a week, fires broke out first in Bangabazar, then New Super Market and now in Uttara BGB market and Baitul Mokarram jewellery market burning down shops in thousands in the flash of an eye. On the same day, two markets, one in Rangpur and another in Sylhet were caught in fire. The loss was a colossus despite all-out efforts by the country’s army, navy, air force, BGB and fire brigade units to control the fire and minimise the damage.
Fire incidents have always involved loss of life or property, sometimes both, only varying in degrees. Only in the last month, March 7 to be specific, a fire at a market in Dhaka due to faulty gas lines claimed 23 lives. Financial loss due to the fire at BM container depot at Sitakunda was estimated at Tk. 1400 crore. And now, Bangabazar fire alone is estimated to have damaged goods worth Tk. 2000 crore. Over 600 shops at New Super Market were gutted in the blaze. The damage reports on other markets are yet to come.
The causes of these fires are not yet clear. Investigations are going on. We have to wait for the investigation reports if they are revealed to the public at all. The fire might have been due to the electric short circuit, leakage of gas lines, gas burner explosions, dumping of inflammable items, throwing of burnt cigarette butts or some other reasons. We shall come to know the actual cause only after the investigations are completed.
The extent of damage, so colossus by any count, might easily be attributed to lack of adequate fire safety arrangements, absence of safe exit for evacuation of goods in times of emergency and haphazard infrastructure construction without giving any consideration for fire hazard. No wonder, a recent survey of the Dhaka city markets reveals that as many as 58 markets in the city alone were found to be at moderate to high fire risk.
The question arises among the public as to why so many fire incidents took place within such a short period of time? The possibility of sabotage behind these fires, as suspected by some quarters, cannot be outright ruled out. The government ought to find out through proper investigation if there was really any act of sabotage from any quarters behind this series of fire incidents. If there was, the criminals should be brought to justice without any fear or favour.
More important fact is to ensure that the markets, identified as risky, are made risk-free without further delay. The markets’ buildings and other infrastructures, mostly dilapidated, need to be renovated. The entire electrical wiring system must be thoroughly checked and faults rectified as necessary. The passages within the market complex need to be kept clean and free for easy movement of goods and customers.
Fire fighting arrangements as per the Fire Service Department’s requirements are almost non-existent in most of these markets. It is high time the Fire Service and Civil Defence authorities took concrete steps in co-operation with the city corporations to see that proper fire fighting arrangements, including an adequate number of fire extinguishers, fire hydrant points and water reservoir and tanks with sufficient water, were there in every market or supermarket according to fire protection laws. Otherwise, shop owners and shop owners’ associations will face legal consequences, including fine or imprisonment or both.
Bangladesh is believed to have a provision for fire insurance policy for the formal sectors of shops and establishments but how far the informal sectors and the SMEs have access to these facilities is doubtful. Even if they have, settlement of their claims after fulfilling the criteria of insurance companies has always been a lengthy and cumbersome process. The result is, many of these small traders and shop owners feel discouraged to take insurance coverage. It is here the government has to develop a mechanism so that the traders can have easy access to insurance coverage.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in the meantime, sanctioned Tk. 9 crore from the government exchequer for the most affected traders of Bangabazar. Dhaka South City Corporation also instantly announced assistance of Tk. 2 crore for the victims. The assistance may appear too small compared to the damage the traders incurred but it is certainly a good gesture that will boost the morale of the victims. The best way to help them recover from the shock and get into business would be to give them bank loans on the softest possible terms. The Bangladesh Bank might play a vital role in this respect.
The writer is a retired Merchant Mariner.
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