Deadly Dhaka blaze prompts calls for government action on building safety

DHAKA, Bangladesh (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Bangladesh must enforce its building code and safety regulations if it is to avoid more disasters like the fire that killed at least 70 people in a centuries-old neighborhood of the capital this week, experts said.

The fire in Chawkbazar, a commercial region in Old Dhaka, began on Wednesday night in a building with shops on its ground floor, a warehouse for plastics and flammable material on the first, and homes on three floors above, police said.

Other parts of Old Dhaka face similar problems, said Iqbal Habib, an architect. He blamed the government for failing to act, and described the situation as “a ticking time bomb”.

Ishtiaque Ahmed, a professor of civil engineering at the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), said proper surveillance could create a much safer housing sector.

He gave the example of the Accord - an agreement between brands, unions and factories to monitor health and safety in the country’s $28 billion garment industry.

Its introduction followed the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building, which killed 1,135 workers and injured more than 2,000 others.

“The only reason why fire accidents in the garment industry (have) decreased is because Accord has constantly monitored the factories since 2013,” he said.

“If there’s a strong team to monitor the housing industry, a lot of fire accidents can be controlled.”

He said the government must also update the building code, a set of rules that was drafted in 1993 and became law in 2006.

A recent government survey showed that many of the capital’s buildings did not comply with the national building code, said Abdur Rahman who heads Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (RAJUK), the body responsible for planning and development in Dhaka.

“We surveyed 208,000 buildings in the last six months, and at least two-thirds of them have violated the national building code in some way,” he said.

“For some reason, we have a tendency to break rules in some clever way or the other. If this does not stop, RAJUK or any other organization cannot bring things under control.”

The head of the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defense, Ali Ahmed Khan, said the government should create a task force bringing together law enforcement, RAJUK and other state bodies to ensure proper monitoring.

Wednesday’s blaze was the city’s worst since 2012. It took place in an area characterized by narrow lanes that snake between tightly-packed buildings, and which authorities say is home to more than 3 million people.

Officials said the fire - which eyewitnesses said erupted after a car’s gas cylinder exploded - was fueled by illegally stored flammable chemicals.

In 2010, a similar fire in Nimtoli, located about one kilometer from Chawkbazar and also fueled by chemical products, killed 124 people.

That prompted a government pledge to relocate chemical factories located in that area. Nine years on though, chemicals are still stored in several residential buildings in Nimtoli, local media have reported.

Reporting by Naimul Karim @Naimonthefield; Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit