According to a Prothom Alo report on 7 January 2017, the secretary of the disaster management and relief ministry informed a press conference that 72,000 buildings in Dhaka had been identified. In 2010 Prothom Alo had reported that 10,000 buildings in Dhaka had faulty structural designs. Another report that year stated that 97 per cent of the buildings in the city had no fire fighting facilities.
The devastating fire at Faruk Rupayan Tower in Banani where so many people died, has shaken us deeply. Prior to that, even more people had died in the Chawk Bazar fire. And before that was the Nimtali tragedy. These consecutive fires, killing so many people, have rendered us vulnerable. Everyone is now focusing on how to protect ourselves from fire. If there was, God forbid, an earthquake today, it would all be about earthquakes. And when there are the inevitable rains bringing the roads to a standstill, then all talk is about water-logging. There will be TV talk shows, newspaper columns, roundtables and so on. Big projects will be taken up and wallets will swell. There will be yet another disaster and we will start blabbering again, more projects will crop up and more funds will be allocated.
There is a common thread to all these fires. People have actually been consumed by the flames of greed, corruption, anarchy and mismanagement. The entire system is faulty. Our administration is rife with corruption. Anarchy prevails in Bangladesh, looting and plundering all around. We need money, millions, billions, trillions. Everything is breaking down in this furnace of greed, everything is turning into ashes. No one even mutters the term ‘good governance’.
We often blame drivers for not having licences, buses for not having route permits or fitness certificates, or point out that certain buildings do not have design approvals. But at the end of the day, what are these certificates other than mere pieces of paper?
One needs over a dozen clearance certificates from RAJUK to get a building design approved. There is the environment clearance, clearance from the fire service authorities and so on. Finally RAJUK then approves the architectural design. I learnt from my friend architect Iqbal Habib that over the past eight years RAJUK has approved 40 thousand buildings. My question is that let alone RAJUK, can any authority in the world ensure completely error-free scrutiny of 40 thousand designs? So what are all these certificates and approvals about? It is all about one thing and that is corruption. You go to around 14 different officials and get them to sign your papers, by any means, fair or foul.
We could have relied on our professional organisations. There is, after all, a list of who is qualified to design buildings. Buildings are to be designed by certified engineers or architects. They will adhere to the building code. The authorities will monitor the process to ensure the rules and regulations are not being violated. There is even provision for a seven-year prison sentence if these regulations are violated. If 10 persons are caught and punished in the next one month, everyone will straighten up.
What do our construction firms do? They roam around the RAJUK corridors with building designs. They have their people whose function is to run around RAJUK for approval. Then the owners want to deviate from the design. So do the builders. Two extra feet means millions of taka more in profit. Another million can be pocketed with one less staircase. Make a restaurant in place of the parking space. Set up restaurants, shops, hospitals, warehouses, schools, anything in residential buildings. In many multi-storey buildings the stairs are blocked. They use security as an excuse for using the lift only, not the stairs. The scariest are the rented premises. The landlord locks the gates after 11 pm and goes to sleep. The tenants are almost like their serfs.
How do residential areas emerge in our country? First there is the landfill of water expanses or cropland. The houses crop up on either side of a six to ten foot road. There are no drains, no places to put up electric poles. Only once the houses are erected does realisation seem to seep in. Then the narrow roads are dug up for drains, for electric poles. When there is rainfall, the roads are submerged. We start yelling at the authorities. How can we break this vicious cycle? The system doesn’t work because we don’t abide by the rules. And we don’t abide by the rules because the system doesn’t work.
Firstly, documents shouldn’t just be pieces of paper. When we get an environment certificate, that means our structure is environment-friendly. Secondly, we must step up monitoring. Mobile courts can be used and the buildings inspected. It is not possible to inspect 70,000buildings. But 70 buildings a day can be inspected. If we inspect only 7 buildings a day, it will take 10,000 days to inspect 70,000 buildings. But if 210 buildings are inspected in a month, then due penalty can be imposed on those breaking the rules. Automatically the remaining 70 thousand will fall into line.
Next we need to look at ourselves. Do we regularly check the fire exits, extinguishers, power lines and gas lines in our homes and office buildings? Do we have fire drills? Our houses are like cages, with grills all around. In times of danger, how do we exit? We will all die like caged birds in a fire. So there can be four salient points. 1. Construct the buildings in accordance to the building code. Inspection teams should check whether the regulations are being followed, and take due action against any violation of the rules. 2. The landlord must keep the key to the main gate close at hand so the gates can be unlocked in times to emergency for safe exit. 3. The entire house shouldn’t have grills all around. There must be some escape routes. 4. The people must increase their own awareness. We should focus more on preventing the fire in the first place, before extinguishing or escaping.
* Anisul Hoque is associate editor of Prothom Alo. This piece was published in the print version of Prothom Alo and rewritten here in English by Ayesha Kabir