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Until the next fire

  • Published at 06:00 pm January 25th, 2020
If this isn’t a call to change, what is? MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

We’ve seen it all before

Promises of action from our authorities are like the average person’s New Year’s resolutions -- bold, energetic displays of commitment which later turn out to be a whole lot of nothing.

Is anyone surprised at the recent fires around the country, including a repeat incident at Mirpur’s Chalantika slum?

Common sense would say there is foul play here, and in that case, what has happened in Mirpur is worse than mere negligence or inaction. It is a crime that has been committed against the residents of that area, and yet, we are in the dark about the details.

Nobody with any authority seems to know anything, and all we can do, evidently, is wait till the next fire. Some residents told this newspaper that the fires broke out at a time when everybody typically would have been asleep. Therefore, no one was cooking. So what was it?

The local police station said police have been deployed in the area to avoid any untoward situation. Of course, this caution is too little too late. Over 1,000 people are now without homes. Multiply this by the fact that the Mirpur fire is just one of many.

We should not, of course, confuse deliberate acts of arson with mere negligence on part of the authorities, but they are close cousins, and it doesn’t take much for negligence to turn criminal. Both are, ultimately, a product of an unwillingness and an inability to protect human lives, with short-term self-interest taking precedence.

By human lives I more specifically refer to the lives of poor people. It’s easier to drive them out of their homes without fearing repercussion in any way that matters.

Try forcing a crooked politician out of his home, no matter how illegal his land. You will succeed only if you catch him at a time when his political capital is at a low.

And so, the empty gestures continue, and fires keep breaking out in a predictable rhythm. 

Last year, on February 20, a CNG cylinder exploded in Chawkbazar, Old Dhaka. Flammable chemicals and plastics were stockpiled nearby, so the blaze went out of control. In the end, an estimated 71 people were dead. 

A lot of theatre followed: There were raids all over. Orders were given to clean up all dangerous stockpiles of hazardous matter around the city. It looked like the government was taking a hard stance against fire disasters. The mayor of Dhaka South, in fact, helped carry chemical drums out of warehouses.

But just like those New Year’s resolutions which get forgotten come February or March, the exact same locations where chemical and plastic warehouses had been shut down started up shop again. They house hazardous chemicals, and they are thriving. If another fire hits Old Dhaka, no one, no one can claim they didn’t see this coming.

At its heart this is a problem with our core values, which emphasizes cutting corners over short term gain. Whoever thinks they will profit through forcing poor people out of their homes does not take a second to think what their actions say about them, and whether they would be OK if the same was done to them. 

The police could care less, because it’s just another useless day at work. Those reopened operations that continue to be fire hazards are happy to cut as many corners as possible for a quick buck, until, that is, everything blows up again. 

It takes time, patience, and a strong moral centre to plan a safe city, to build a nation. Greed and a lack of conscience is all it takes to burn everything down, to endlessly repeat a cycle of destruction.

Those of us lucky enough to have survived have become so desensitized to this brutality that we no longer stop to do, or even say, the right things. 

We say: Hey, bad things happen. Better them than me.

Abak Hussain is Editor, Editorial and Op-Ed, Dhaka Tribune.

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