Recurring slum fires a cause of concern: Daily Star

DHAKA (THE DAILY STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – Incidences of fire in the slums of Dhaka have taken frighteningly endemic proportions.

In the last six months, fires have engulfed several large slums in the city, creating greater suffering for already marginalised and distressed populations.

In the latest incident, on June 7, more than 500 shanties in a large slum in Mohakhali were gutted.

The authorities are still looking for the causes of fire. But need one spend so much time to look at the causes of fire, given the very hazardous environment the slum dwellers live in?

The growth of slums in Dhaka city, as in many other big cities, particularly of Asia, is a natural phenomenon, economically driven by the pull of the metropolis.

One doesn’t have to read volumes to discover the causes and consequences of shanty fires. It is, thus, surprising that our planners have spared little time to this very destabilising phenomenon.

It is worth mentioning that, out of an estimated 20 million people living in Dhaka, more than a million live in the hundreds of slums dotted across the city.

The official estimate, according to the LGRD minister’s comment in 2019, is half that number. But that figure is already outdated by half a decade, since it is from 2014.

However, the difference in numbers notwithstanding, there is no substantive plan (nor is one on the anvil) that would address the problems of the slum dwellers in totality, and more importantly, help reduce the chances of disasters by eliminating their hazardous living conditions.

Given the existing conditions of the slums, what is surprising is not that there are periodic incidences of fire, but that these do not occur more often.

We believe that the government should expand its interventions in slum areas. As a first step, these slums must be freed of rent-seekers and gang lords who hold the residents in bondage.

A comprehensive plan to make the slums of Dhaka more resilient should be formulated. There are already several NGOs working in the slums to address and mitigate different problems.

Their experiences must also be garnered into a cohesive action plan. Unless concrete steps are taken to prevent all kinds of hazards, including fire, and mitigate their consequences, the people of the slums will be consigned to suffer from them in perpetuity.

There is also an urgent need to develop low cost housing for slum-dwellers. Does the government have any plans for these people, who are significant contributors to the economy and yet are forced to give up a huge portion of their income as rent for accommodation that is substandard and risky?

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