There was flammable material in the Hashem Foods factory. The presence of flammable and highly flammable materials has been found in the recent large fires. Does the fire service have the capacity to control a fire ignited from these chemicals?
Hashem Foods is a food processing factory and it contained a lot of flammable liquids. Edible oil and 'dalda' (vegetable fat) were spilling down the stairs. A special kind of foam is needed to extinguish such fires and the fire service has that foam. But they did not have that during the fire at Nimtali in 2010. The fire service even has special fire extinguishing vehicles now. However, it is not possible to send these everywhere as the roads are often narrow. If a fire breaks out, the first thing to look for is what kind of chemicals are there. Based on that assessment, necessary equipment and fire extinguishing vehicles are sent to the scene from the nearest fire station.
Most of the industries are located outside Dhaka, but most of the fire fighters and modern and advanced fire extinguishers are at the fire stations in the capital’s Mirpur area.
A few years back, a fire broke out at a garments factory in Ashulia and it took a lot of time to reach there with the necessary equipment. Since then, there has been an call to increase the capacity of the fire service. Now the point is will we give more protection to the capital, or to a factory in Gazipur? Both are equally important. However, the capital would be prioritised without any doubt. Special fire extinguishing vehicles are being provided in some of the districts. However, it depends on the number of industries there. The export processing zones (EPZ) have their own arrangement for fire extinguishing. This means that planned industrialisation includes a fire control system. But unplanned industrialisation creates more opportunities for mismanagement.
Many industrial factories are being developed outside Dhaka. What are the initiatives regarding the fire safety there?
The government tries to prevent the development of industries everywhere. However, in reality, everything is not possible. Due to this lack of control, fire accidents occur and casualties increase. We have to see who is giving the permission for factories and buildings. I must admit the demand is far beyond the capability of the fire service. Insufficient resources are also a problem.
It is needed to get a clearance from the departments of explosives to import flammable chemicals. In several recent fire incidents, it has been revealed that flammable materials were stocked at the scene illegally. What would you say about the role of the department of explosives in this regard?
They have to take the responsibility as the permission is being given. The stocks should be monitored. It is clear from the incident in Narayanganj that there was lack of management regarding the storage of flammable materials. The Department of Explosives cannot avoid their responsibility in any way.
Was it possible to use the modern equipment to extinguish the fire at the factory of Hashem foods or did they use only water?
I cannot say for sure whether the special fire extinguishing foam was used or not. However, there was no lack of water. The credit for this, however, does not go to the fire service vehicles. There was a water body next to it. Water was collected from there using seven pumps.
Now most of the factories are being developed in the rural areas. There, the union parishad gives the permission for the buildings. What kind of problem is this creating?
After the Rana Plaza accident, we were shocked when we went to check their building permits. They took the approval from the union parishad. We are seeing that the industries are being developed in the rural areas by getting approval for the building plan from the union parishad. This kind of recklessness cannot be expressed in words. Is there any architect or engineer at the union parishad? So on what basis is the plan being approved? Do they have the authority to approve? There is another conflict between the ministry of local government and public works regarding this. Both the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (Rajuk) and city corporations have the authority to approve the plans. This issue has been discussed many times, but the problem is not solved as yet.
The Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments is in charge of monitoring the safety issues of the worker. What is their contribution?
This directorate is not only in charge, it can even direct the fire service. The “check list” of the things to be monitored has been given in the labour law of 2015. The repeated fires, one after another, have shown how they are carrying out their responsibility.
After most of the fire incidents, it was revealed that the death toll was high as the workers could escape. There have been allegations of the gates of the factories being shut. What would you say about this?
After the fire at Tazreen garments, it was revealed that the collapsible gate was locked. This is a crime. The Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments cannot avoid its liability if the gates of the factories are locked. This directorate is in charge of monitoring this issue. A programme was launched to ensure that the gates of the factories remain open after the incident. Now, if it is proved in the investigation that the gates of the warehouse of Hashem Foods were also locked, the owners have to bear the responsibility. They will also have to answer if there is no safety committee. We have the laws, but not the enforcement.
What about the responsibilities of the National Health and Safety Council?
This council is made of the representatives of the government, owners’ association and the workers. This council has not held any meeting in the last one year. However, the council was supposed to hold a meeting after every three months. Even a year ago there were regular meetings. However, one thing has been done. The council has prepared the National Health Protection Policy-2013 for industrial factories. However, there was no action plan. That is the greatest flaw.
What is the role of workers here?
One third of this council are the representatives of workers’ associations. They stage protests on various issues. However, I never saw any demand from them regarding the safety issues. I did not see any massive protest against the trend of locking the collapsible gates at the factories.
In most of the cases, the owners are influential. In that case, what are the ways to independently investigate and publish the probe report?
One can be influential financially and politically. It is the responsibility of the political leaders to ensure that they cannot misuse their power through money. The administration will monitor the entire issue. The home and the labour ministry are directly in charge in these cases. If they carried their duties properly, there would be no way to influence. The recommendations given by the probe committee after the accident should be clearly published. Many issues do not come to the fore because it remains unpublished.
The injured workers and families of the deceased do not get compensation properly. Who will bear the responsibility of that?
The list of the people to get the compensation is made by three parties — the government, the employers and the workers' organisations. If there is any deviation, the parliamentary standing committee may also want to know about it from the concerned ministry. They have this responsibility. The media also has significant responsibility in this. If they monitor everything from the start and publish the probe report, the concerned organisation and officials will have some accountability.
*This interview appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ashish Basu