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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 174
June 19, 2010

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Nimtali tragedy: Questions for enforcement of law

Many men, women and children have been killed or scared. Some families have become extinct. The Nimtali tragedy masquerades the critical question as to whether urban planning has any meaning in this capital, which we pompously celebrate as a modern capital and continue adding accompaniments to it without giving a thought to the safety of the residents trapped in its the back of beyond.

In less than 48 hours time from the Begunbari building collapse that claimed more than 24 lives, yet another tragedy of far greater magnitude struck the capital city Thursday night. More than 119, mostly women and children, were charred to death and 200 others received severe burn injuries in the country's worst ever fire incident involving eight residential buildings and more than 20 shops at the densely populated Nawab Katra and Nimtali of the old part of the city.

The origin of the fire remains a mystery. Some residents of the locality claimed the fire had originated from the power transformer explosion while others said it started from a place storing chemicals. The source of the fire matters little now since the disaster has completely devastated many families, in terms of life and property.

There were numerous plastic and chemical factories in the narrow lane. How was it allowed? The Dhaka City Corporation and industries department must be called to account. Firstly, housing in a metropolitan city was reduced to a cruel joke. Another atrocity committed upon municipal laws was to permit hazardous plants in a crowded locality. When ponds and water-filled ditches of the city were filled up one after the other some thought should have been given to future eventualities.

The seminal question is not how the fire originated but how it spread so fast and so devastatingly. The reason is that the area is completely unplanned. The residents of the area were reported as saying that taking into accounts the physical surrounding they had been anticipating an accident. The lane is so narrow as would hardly admit a rickshaw. Firemen have a point when they say their vehicles could not penetrate close to the scene because of inadequate access. However, fire service will have to update their skill and equipment in the light of the city's limitations. Their problem may have been compounded due to load shedding.

Of course, the fire service must not be dependent on light from other sources. And after the calamity struck why did the Power Development Board not restore electricity in the area on an emergency basis? Why did the victims and their rescuers have to wait for the normal stretch of darkness to end?

But the key question is whether building codes are being observed in old Dhaka. It is well known that new illegal structures chaotically constructed cheek by jowl with old dilapidated buildings is still coming up. The problem was best exemplified during the current tragedy, when fire tenders could not enter the affected parts in time to douse the flames. This could have saved more lives. The unadvisable and potentially dangerous co-existence of residential quarters with shops storing inflammable chemicals is something the administration should now look into seriously.

To enforce tough rules and laws is the job of the government, and it should be held liable for defaulting in that respect. But what is about our own sense of responsibility as law-abiding citizens? Or must we have to be forever chased by the big stick to follow the rules?

Mohammad Shahidul Islam
Hospitality-training consultant, Dhaka.



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