Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), speaks to Prothom Alo about the recent Chawkbazar fire that claimed around 70 lives and injured scores.
Prothom Alo: How do you view the devastating fire at Chawkbazar area in Old Dhaka? Who is responsible for it?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: It is heart-breaking, frustrating, agitating and annoying. It happened because of the greed of a few business people who were allowed to make profit over peoples’ lives and security. It could have been avoided if the authorities had performed their basic duties.
I would describe this as a classic example of governance failure. I can’t resist myself from pointing fingers to the negligence and monumental failures of the industries ministry, the Dhaka South City Corporation, the departments of environment and explosives that led to such an unfortunate and unacceptable incident.
Although the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence has done its best to rescue people, its proactive role could have prevented the fire, I must say. True that the chemical godowns believed to be the main reason behind the spread of the fire were not given licences, but they were and still are operating just in front of the eyes of the authorities! The authorities deliberately and in connivance took no action against them. They were totally reluctant about their duty to protect public safety.
Prothom Alo: After such incidents authorities pledge steps to stop it. But nothing is done afterwards. Why?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: Because money talks, because our lives are much less important than their profits, because there is a longstanding culture of impunity, and because there is no accountability. It is very disturbing to note that the authorities turned deaf ears to the demands of the Old Dhaka residents for a safer neighbourhood. Instead, the authorities admittedly bowed and listened to the unethical demands of the business association for putting to halt the drive against the illegal chemical stores! We are yet to have a governance system in place that would demand accountability against such unethical interferences from businesses. Law is yet to be applied indiscriminately.
Prothom Alo: Do you think the authorities will learn any lesson from the incident?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: I would hope so but afraid that absence of democracy, total absence of checks and balances, and absence of active citizenry may worsen things in years to come. The fact that it has taken the government almost nine years to act upon the lessons of Nimtoli makes me skeptical.
Prothom Alo: Do you think the chemical warehouses should be relocated soon from Old Dhaka?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: An emphatic yes, the process of relocation should start without any further delay and must reach finality in the shortest possible time span.
The government should, at the same time, plan for redevelopment of Old Dhaka. With proper motivation, financial incentives and by taking local people to confidence, this can also be done in a time bound manner. Here, the government should not confuse between renovation and conservation. It must not think of demolishing Old Dhaka and giving it a total new face. It should rather be saving the rich heritage and culture of Old Dhaka and rearrange the housing and land ownership patterns to make it a safe neighbourhood. Examples of successful redevelopment schemes are ample.
Prothom Alo: Former industries minister Dilip Barua blames his successor Amu for the Chawkbazar tragedy. Why is this blame game?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: I see no prudence in their actions. The simple reason behind such disgusting behavior is that none of them performed their duties as public representatives. They enjoyed power but did not exercise their authorities for common good.
Prothom Alo: What is your suggestion to put an end to such tragedy in future?
Syeda Rizwana Hasan: To ensure that such incidences do not occur in the future, I suggest that the government develops a national chemical safety guideline and identifies a lead agency to implement the same. The government must aim to regulate the import of chemical substances and their distribution. It is astonishing to note that there is no data base of import of chemicals! Hazardous chemicals should only be imported based on exact demands and must be distributed promptly so as to avoid unsafe storage.
On Chawkbazar, I would suggest that the government apologises for its failure and punishes those who neglected to perform. The actions of the government must be deterrent enough to avoid similar incidences in future. The government has to prioritise people’s right to life over everything else and must refrain from putting a price tag of Tk 100,000 over a lost live.