Restaurant business booms, safety lags behind

When a fire broke out on 29 February at the Green Cozy Cottage building on Bailey Road, 46 persons were killed in the flamesProthom Alo

There are restaurants in every nook and corner of the capital city and a boom in eateries at the district and upazila towns too. Young entrepreneurs are investing in this business.

The number of customers is on the rise in the restaurants too. Families, friends and others are thronging to the restaurants. And so now these establishments are adding significantly to the country's economy and creating opportunities for employment too.

The problem is that many of the restaurants are being opened up in residential buildings. Many restaurants are running in buildings which have permission for offices. And again, many of the restaurants do not have the required certificates and permission. They fall short in maintaining health protocol and food standards.

After 46 persons were killed when the building Green Cozy Cottage on Bailey Road in the capital caught fire, the shortfalls in permission for restaurants and fire safety came to the fore. There were eight restaurants in the building, though it had no permission to accommodate restaurants.

The people who died in the fire had gone to the restaurants with the family, friends and relatives. Some of them earned their living working in the restaurants.

After the fire at Bailey Road, five organisations of the government -- Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakhya (RAJUK), Dhaka South City Corporation, Dhaka North City Corporation, Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) and the Fire Service and Civil Defence Directorate -- began conducting drives all over the city. In these random drives around the city, some restaurants were demolished, some were sealed, employees were arrested and fines were imposed. Outside of this, the Directorate of National Consumer Rights Protection, the Food Safety Authority and other agencies conduct drives the year round. The restaurant owners complain that they have to "manage" the corrupt officials of these agencies throughout the year to carry on their businesses.

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Urban planners and architects say that the restaurateurs have invested millions of taka in the restaurants. These establishments provide employment to thousands of people. The restaurants need to be brought under regulation, but random operations are not the answer.

President of the Bangladesh Institute of Planners, Adil Rahman, speaking to Prothom Alo, said that all the irregularities cannot be brought under control overnight. It must been ensured that the entire system be rendered safe, without harming the restaurant industry.

There is a glaring lack of public space in the capital. For many, entertainment now means eating out at a restaurant. This category of people is on the rise. They like experimenting with new cuisines. And restaurants have come up with an array of food choices.

How many restaurants

Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) carried out a survey in 2021 on the restaurant sector. The objective of the survey was to determine the sector's contribution to the country's GDP.

According to the survey results, there were 436,274 hotels and restaurants in the country in 2021, which was 58 per cent more than in the 2009-10 fiscal. Of these, 852 are owned by state-owned companies. The rest were all owned by individuals and private companies.

Over the past one decade, many young persons have become entrepreneurs by establishing restaurants. Pronil Shamsad Jadid of Dhaka is one such young man. After graduating with a degree in business administration, he did not go looking for a job. Neither did he go abroad with his friends. What he did was take funds from his family and invest it as capital in a restaurant. He has 11 restaurants in Dhaka under three different brand names. Two of his restaurants were closed down in the drives after the Bailey Road fire.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, Pronil said, "No one said that so many different approvals would be required to set up a restaurant. All we knew was that a trade licence would be required. Now they are talking about 10 or 11 different certificates." He said, the authorities were behaving in an inhuman manner. He now wonders whether it would have been better if her had left the country and gone abroad.

With investments increasing, employment in restaurants has doubled. According to the BBS survey, there are around 2,072,000 people involved in the sector. This was just around 900,000 a decade ago. Many women are joining the sector too, alongside their male counterparts. The employees earn around Tk 314.29 billion (Tk 31,429 crore) in wages and other allowances annually. An employee earns Tk 152,000 annually on average.

Md Ujjal Gazi was the manager of a restaurant that was recently shut down. His monthly salary was Tk 25,000 and his family would live on this salary. He told Prothom Alo, "My job has suddenly become uncertain. I was supposed to get married after Eid, but have postponed this, given the situation." He said there had been 25 employees in the restaurant, and how all of them are in uncertainty. It is now the holy month of Ramadan and Eid-ul-Fitr is ahead. Everyone is in a dilemma with their families.

The BBS survey also reveals the annual turnover of the restaurants. It stated that the gross output is around Tk 1,180 billion (Tk 1 lakh 18 thousand crore), which is three times higher than it was a decade ago. In the 2019-20 fiscal the restaurants contributed around Tk 390 billion (Tk 39,000 crore) to the GDP.

Secretary general of the Bangladesh Restaurant Owners Association, Imran Hasan, told Prothom Alo, it is essential that the restaurant business be brought under one organisation and the registration process made easier. Rather than haphazard drives, initiative must be taken to ensure the safety of the restaurants.

The drives conducted by the five organisations after the Bailey Road fire, that slowed down somewhat. RAJUK sources say, they are planning on an integrated operation.

RAJUK's chief urban planner Md Ashraful Islam said that the government has taken initiative to render the restaurant sector safe as was done in the garment sector. He told Prothom Alo, the restaurant business has boomed because of the demand. The economy, employment are all linked to this. So there is need for policy to be formulated to make these establishments fire-safe. This policy will be implemented in coordination with the government agencies.

Food, fun and 'adda'

There is a glaring lack of public space in the capital. For many, entertainment now means eating out at a restaurant. This category of people is on the rise. They like experimenting with new cuisines. And restaurants have come up with an array of food choices. Dhaka eateries offer Chinese, India, Thai, Japanese, Korean, Arabian, Turkish and all sorts of cuisine. The big restaurants have kids' zones for the little ones. And coffee shops have become the perfect 'adda' hubs.

This correspondent spoke to members of 10 different families with children between 5 to 14 years of age, in various areas of the capital. The parents said that their children were more or less stuck at home. There were now playing grounds. That is why on the weekends or other holidays they would take their children to eat out at restaurants.

Sharif Al Noor is a physician who lives in Rafiq Housing of Shekhertek in the capital and the father of Ahian Tanzim Noor. He told Prothom Alo that the children now have fun going to restaurants in different areas.

The way ahead

Just as the restaurants lack in fire safety arrangements, the buildings and shopping centres in which these establishments are housed also have inadequacies. Fire safety must be strengthened in all areas.

Vice president of Bangladesh Poribesh Andolan (BAPA), architect Iqbal Habib, feels that it is essential within the next three to six months to identify the buildings in the city that have fire risks and to take steps accordingly. Speaking to Prothom Alo, he said that a task force needs to be formed jointly by the concerned government authorities responsible for providing approval for the construction of the buildings and for business licences. At the same time, a list of high risk and risky buildings must be updated regularly on a website and notices displayed visibly in front of the concerned buildings.

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