Photo shows a chemical shop at Old Dhaka.
Prothom Alo file photo

As many as 1,924 wholesale and retail establishments are running business of in Dhaka South City Corporation area and most of these establishments or warehouses are more or less risky, according to a study.

Dhaka South City Corporation, Department of Fire Service and Civil Defense, Department of Explosive and representatives of two intelligence agencies conducted the survey last December at the instruction of the Cabinet Division.

Officials at the Dhaka South City Corporation said the list was handed over to the Department of Explosive in the first week of March.

People concerned said everyone knows about chemical warehouses and its risks, but no action is taken. In the meantime, a fire broke out at a chemical godown housed in Musa Mansion in Old Dhaka’s Armanitola on 23 April, killing six people. Certain Ashikuzzaman, one of the fire victims, died on the night of 28 April and his wife is in a critical condition.

The Department of Explosives operates under the power, energy and mineral resources ministry. Why is the Department of Explosive not taking action to relocate risky establishments housing chemical substances? In reply to this query, state minister for power, energy and mineral resources Nasrul Hamid told Prothom Alo most of the chemical traders don’t obtain clearance from the Department of Explosive. Raids are conducted sometimes to stop their business, but they start again. No residential area should house any commercial entity and strong measures of the government is necessary to stop it, he added.

According to the survey of the Dhaka South City Corporation, 98 per cent of 1,924 chemical godowns pose moderate level of risk. Some 1.5 per cent has low risk and the remaining 0.5 per cent poses high risk. Shops that sell and stock any of 36 chemicals listed as per the Acid Control Act, the Narcotics Control Act and the Department of Explosive are marked as risky. The building that caught fire in Armanitola had chemical stocked in it. The burnt chemicals released toxic fumes. Physicians said six people living in Musa Mansion died of toxic fumes.

The survey shows chemical shops and warehouses are located in Islambagh, Armanitola, Mitford, Chawkbazar, Moulvibazar, Begum Bazar and Tantibazar areas of Old Dhaka and each godown stocks an amount of chemicals weighing from at least 200 kg to maximum 80,000 kg.

“Our hands are tied”

How do traders run business amid the risk of fire and why is there no action taken? The local public representatives and the high officials of the city corporation expressed their helplessness. The councillor of the Dhaka South City’s ward no. 31, Sheikh Md Alamgir said, “Our hands are tied. If I askefor traders’ licence and question the legality of their operations, they (traders) say I’m doing this because I am not receiving any 'toll' money.”

If chemical businesses are halted by a sudden drive, this will hae a negative impact on various industries in the country, chief executive officer of the Dhaka South City Corporation, ABM Amin Ullah Nuri claimed. He told Prothom Alo a high-level committee of the cabinet division is working on a strategy on how the traders of Old Dhaka can continue to run business avoiding risks until their relocation.

Talks about relocating chemical godown are not new. Talks have been on at the government level for two decades. The matter of relocating chemical business drew more attention after the Nimtoli fire tragedy that claimed 124 lives in 2010. The industry ministry took initiative to build the 'chemical palli' (industrial park for chemical establishments) to relocate chemical business to a planned area. No work or land filling of the chemical industrial park has started in a decade as yet.

Seventy-one people died in a fire at Chawkbazar's Churihatta on 20 February 2019 nine years after the Nimtoli tragedy. At that time, initiative was taken to build makeshift warehouses to relocate the chemical businesses immediately. The industry ministry couldn’t finish building these godowns as yet.

No one has been tried in the incidents of Nimtali and Churihatta as yet. Two cases were filed in Churihatta fire incident and its probe hasn’t been completed in two years. A general diary was filed over Nimtali fire incident and police carried out no investigation as yet.

License stops, business running

The Dhaka South City Corporation has stopped issuing and renewing trade licence for chemical business. The corporation said no license had been issued since 2019.

Business, however, is running as usual. Traders said alongside the legal ones, many illegal companies are also running business in Old Dhaka stocking and selling hazardous and flammable substances secretly. Regarding this, the advisor of the chemical traders’ body Bangladesh Chemical and Perfumery Merchant Association, Enayet Hossain said many people sell hazardous chemicals to make more profit. They don’t bother to listen to the traders’ association.

Local residents said most of the chemical shops and godowns are housed in residential buildings. Residents of the respective building have no way to learn which chemicals are hazardous or which ones are flammable substances. The general secretary of Armanitola Social Welfare Sangsad, Zakir Hossain told Prothom Alo Old Dhaka bears brunt of the negligence of all agencies of the government.

Armanitola returns to its prior look

Locals were preparing for sehri when fire broke out at Musa Mansion in Armanitola on 23 April. Neighbours rushed to rescue the victims. Families are still mourning the loss of their dear ones. Nearly 20 people are still receiving treatment at the capital’s Sheikh Hasina National Institute of Burn and Plastic Surgery.

Yet, traders in Armanitola opened their shops two days after the incident like they did before. No one knows when the risky business will be relocated from Old Dhaka. General secretary of Bangladesh Institute of Planners (BIP) Adil Muhammad Khan told a press conference on 29 April that the incidents in Nimtali, Churihatta and Armanitola are not accidents. This a result of the tendency of traders and landlords to make excessive profit and the failure of government agencies to carry out responsibility combined, he added.

This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna