No legal action has been taken against the culprits responsible for the Nimtoli and Churihatta tragedies yet
Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) has found that the government and its relevant offices are not complying with their own decisions in preventing recurrence of devastating fire tragedies such as the Churihatta and Nimtoli infernos.
Even after the Churihatta fire incident in 2019, issuing and renewing licences for chemical businesses still continue riding on political influence, corrupt officials and illegal money, according to a TIB research.
The research titled, "Nimtoli, Churihatta and afterwards: Governance challenges in ensuring fire safety in Old Dhaka and way-out" conducted from October 2019 to August 2020 was unveiled in a virtual press conference on Thursday.
There is a transparency gap in compensation for these tragedies. Besides, no legal action has been taken against the culprits responsible for the Nimtoli and Churihatta tragedies yet, said the TIB.
The anti-corruption watchdog observed that lack of political will to relocate chemical warehouses is evident. Corruption of government agencies concerned and undue political influence are effectively used for operating these activities.
In some cases, with the help of some corrupt officials in the city corporation, businesspeople drop the word "chemical" from the names of their shops and apply for a new licence.
As it is difficult to get an acid licence, undue political influence is used for that as well.
Some political leaders even obtain such licences in their names despite having no chemical businesses. Later, they take money from business people and let them use the licences.
"It is alleged that bribe money for issuing licences ranges between Tk20,000-30,000 in the environment department, Tk150,000-250,000 in the explosives department, Tk3,000-12,000 in the fire service and civil defence office and Tk1,500-18,000 in the city corporation," says the report.
"Inflammable material is imported and carried to the warehouses openly. It is alleged that law enforcement agencies take Tk300 for releasing a vehicle," it added.
"Business associations pay a bribe of Tk2-3 lakh to law enforcement agencies every month," said an owner of a chemical factory and warehouse interviewed by TIB.
The report says the High Court issued a show-cause notice to relevant authorities asking why the chemical warehouses would not be removed from Old Dhaka; no government agencies have replied to the notice, even after ten years of the order.
Dr Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of TIB said, "There is a lack of political will in removing the chemical warehouses from Old Dhaka. The syndicated irregularities and malpractices are effectively used for operating these. Some unscrupulous businesses and a portion of law enforcement agencies and officials at the department concerned are behind all these."
He urged the Anti-Corruption Commission to take proper action against those involved.
There have even been instances of contempt of court for failing to comply with the high court directives – it is a clear example of irresponsibility, lack of good governance and immorality, Dr Iftekharuzzaman pointed out.
The victims in the two horrific fire incidents got compensation in name only, he added.
The Nimtoli and Churihatta tragedies are the worst cases of fire incidents among the recent incidents in Old Dhaka.
On June 3, 2010, a fire originated from an electric transformer at 43, Nawab Katara of Nimtoli and spread to a warehouse of chemical and inflammable products, which took the lives of 124 people and left some hundreds of people burnt.
On February 20, 2019, another fire incident took place at Waheed Mansion of Churihatta in Chawkbazar.
The study found that no legal action against illegal or unauthorised chemical warehouses was taken.
Sometimes, law enforcement agencies conduct an inquiry just to get illegal money.
The industries and factories are supposed to get electric wiring support from a designated company and clearance from the power authority, but it is alleged that the power office takes unauthorised money and provides clearance without even checking the load capacity of the buildings.
Lack of accountability
Relevant authorities show limitations in preventing and controlling fire incidents, and for doing so, they are held accountable.
After each incident, inquiry committees and a task force were formed, and recommendations were made. Most recommendations went unaddressed.
In 2011, a committee was formed to find a suitable place for setting up a "Chemical Village" and an inter-ministry technical committee was formed. They submitted their recommendations identifying the implementing authorities.
As part of the initiatives for preventing fire hazards in Old Dhaka, the selection of locations in Shyampur, Tongi and Munshiganj for shifting warehouses and factories was done in 2019; work is now in progress in Shyampur.
The relevant stakeholders to prevent fire in the Old Dhaka are Dhaka South City Corporation, RAJUK, Dhaka WASA, Ministry of Industries, Department of Disaster Management, Dhaka District Administration, Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments, Department of Explosives, Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence, Department of Environment.
The report says there is a coordination gap among these authorities in implementing the recommendations made by the inquiry committees and task forces.
And limitations and shortfalls in relevant laws have also been found by the study.
A lack of budget and plans for preventing fire accidents proves that this type of human-made catastrophe has not got due recognition as a disaster, it added.