Fire safety: Disjointed drives, dragging investigations

RAJUK raids restaurant in residential building. Officials check documents. Wednesday afternoon at Bar BQ Tonite in Dhanmondi of the capitalSazid Hossain

After the fire at the Green Cozy Cottage building on Bailey Road in the capital which killed 46 persons, government agencies raided hundreds of restaurants and buildings in separate drives. However, experts question how successful such action will be due to the lack of coordination in the drives.

The fire at the Bailey Road building took place on the night of 29 February. On 3 and 4 March, Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP), Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (RAJUK), Dhaka South City Corporation and Dhaka North City Corporation took up drives. The Fire Service and Civil Defence Directorate joined the two city corporations in the drives.

In these 10 days, DMP has conducted drives in 1,132 restaurants. RAJUK raised 33 buildings and imposed Tk 4.7 million (Tk 47 lakh) in fines. Dhaka South City Corporation sealed two buildings and two restaurants and fined 7 establishments Tk 710,000. Dhaka North City Corporation fined 22 establishments, totalling Tk 618,000.

Former director general of the Fire Service and Civil Defence Directorate, Brig. Gen. Ali Ahmed Khan (retd), feel that these government agencies are carrying out the drives just in a show of action. Speaking to Prothom Alo, he said such eyewash drives will not resolve the problem. This must be done on a planned and coordinated manner. He said that before the operations there needs to be a survey concerning the condition of the buildings. The authorities of the buildings which have inadequate safety must be issued warnings and, at the same time, regular coordinated drives must be carried out.

Even the slipshod drives have already lost vigour. DMP's operations have come to a halt. Dhaka South City did not carry out any operation on Wednesday, though North City did. RAJUK yesterday, Wednesday, raised three buildings.

Meanwhile, neither of the two inquiry committees formed by the fire service and RAJUK regarding the Bailey Road fire, have not submitted their reports. The fire service committee was told to submit their report in the shortest possible time. The RAJUK committee was given seven working days, which have ended.

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Head of the fire service committee and director (operation and maintenance) of the directorate, Mohammad Tajul Islam, and RAJUK's member (development control) Mohammad Abdul Ahad, told Prothom Alo that their investigations had not been completed as yet.

As the reports of these two committees have not been submitted as yet, it could not be known whether the government agency officials had any liability or not.

Meanwhile, there has been no significant progress in investigations in the case filed with Ramna police station regarding the fire. Four persons were arrested and are in jail in this case. The case was transferred to the police's Criminal Investigation Department (CID). CID's additional police super Azad Rahman told Prothom Alo, they have begun investigations. There is no sign of any progress so far.

After the Bailey Road fire, it was revealed that there had been no permission for restaurants in the building. The fore service was aware of the fire risks in the building and had issued three letters in this regard too.

When these matters came to light, a volley of criticism followed. Then on the night of 3 March DMP rook up the first drive. In the three days from 3 to 5 March, DMP carried out 1,347 drives in various areas of Dhaka. This included 1,132 restaurants, 207 gas cylinder shops, and 8 warehouses. And 872 persons were arrested in these operations. However, DMP's drive is no long being carried out.

When asked about the matter, DMP additional commissioner (crime and ops) Khandakar Mahid Uddin told Prothom Alo that the operation would not always be carried out in the same manner, naturally. When needed, when specific allegations were lodged, action would be taken accordingly. He said that the police would assist the other agencies in running mobile courts and carrying out other legal action.

Meanwhile, following a writ petition of Supreme Court lawyers Masud R Sobhan and Fatema S Chowdhury, the High Court has ordered a list of the names of the workers and employees arrested from various restaurants in Dhaka. This order was issued along with ruling by Justice Mustafa Zaman Islam and Justice Md Atabullah yesterday, Wednesday.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, lawyers Masud R Sobhan said, the inspector general of police has been instructed to submit the report to the court within one month.

The fire had broken out in this building on Bailey Road, killing 46
Prothom Alo

It is RAJUK's responsibility to check whether buildings are being erected according to the city's plans, how the buildings are supposed to be and how they actually are. Experts say there are a lot of shortcomings in their performing their duties. However, RAJUK has taken up drives after the Bailey Road fire. The RAJUK officials have been 'randomly' raiding various buildings and imposing fines.

RAJUK member (development control) Mohammad Abdul Ahad, claims that their raids are a part of routine operations. He told Prothom Alo, it is not as if RAJUK is operating the mobile court only after the Bailey Road fire. Such operations are run regularly. Two inter-agency teams have been formed in the two Dhaka city corporations to check whether the buildings have occupancy certificates, fire safety, etc. The teams have been working in a coordinated manner.

Sources in RAJUK say, however, that after the Bailey Road fire, the organisation's city development committee held a meeting on 4 March where it was decided to form 8 inter-agency teams headed by the directors of 8 zonal offices of RAJUK. In accordance to the decision, letters were sent to the city corporation, the fire service and other concerned agencies for the names of their representatives.

The teams have not started work as yet. Actually, work on forming the teams hasn't even started. The chief executive officer (CEO) of Dhaka North City Corporation, Mir Khairul Alam, told Prothom Alo that RAJUK has called for a meeting on 14 March (today, Thursday) regarding the integrated drive. A work plan would be devised at the meeting. He said, this is not just eyewash. From now on the matter of trade licences would also be strictly monitored.

As part of RAJUK plans for an integrated operation, a team of the organisation yesterday, Wednesday, also raided three buildings on Dhanmondi Road 9A. Two houses were fined.

For instance, RAJUK raised a house in Dhanmondi to find that the building had approval for residences, but had restaurants on the ground and first floors. On the third floor there was a private school. Executive magistrate Munir Hossain Howladar who was heading the drive, said a deadline has been given to relocate the business establishments from the residential buildings.

Urban planners say that there are thousands of buildings in Dhaka with such unapproved establishments. There are also innumerable buildings at risk of fire. According to the fire service, 2,603 buildings in Dhaka are at risk of fire. Also, the authorities of 6,284 buildings have taken fire-related planning clearance for design approval in four years (2020-2023). But after the buildings are constructed, the authorities of only 484 buildings have collected documents to certify that the fire safety plans have been maintained in the construction.

A survey was carried out for RAJUK's Detailed Area Plan (DAP). The survey revealed that on average 95,000 new structures were erected every year from 2006 till 2016 in the area under DAP. However, approval was taken for 4,175 buildings on average. That means 95 per cent of the constructed buildings were illegal.

Experts say that it is due to the negligence of RAJUK and other government agencies that illegal buildings, restaurants without permission, risky shopping centres, hospitals, educational institutions, etc, have had the change to sprout up all over the city. It is not possible to conduct sudden raids and demolish the buildings or close these down. Instead, a survey must be carried out, then short, mid, and long-term plans be drawn up and then work be taken up in a coordinated manner to make these safe. If not, accidents will recur regularly and the government agencies will simply conduct an outward display of action.

Some say that such operations create panic. These also create opportunity for corrupt officials of the government agencies to take unethical advantage of the situation.

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Professor Adil Muhammad Khan of Jahangirnagar University's Department of Urban and Regional Planning told Prothom Alo that in light of past experience, it feels that the isolated drives by the various agencies will have no long-term outcome. During the raids on the chemical warehouses in Old Dhaka, there was a marked lack of strong political will. It is the same now.

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