DHAKA, Bangladesh – A fire in Bangladesh killed at least 81 people and gutted a section of Chawkbazar, a section of Dhaka that dates to the Mughal era 400 years ago, in a stark reminder of the lapses in public safety that continue in the South Asian country despite its rapid economic development.
The fire leaped from building to building in the ancient district, a warren of narrow streets — some only one meter (3 feet) wide — with apartments squeezed over shops, restaurants and industrial warehouses on the ground floors.
Witnesses said many gas cylinders stored in the buildings continued to explode one after another. They said the fire also set off explosions in the fuel tanks of some vehicles that were stuck in traffic in front of the destroyed buildings.
Officials said firefighters struggled to reach the area because of heavy traffic and narrow alleys that were busy when the fire started.
After a fire in 2010 swept through Nimtoli, a district near Chawkbazar, killing at least 123 people, authorities promised to bring the area into compliance with building codes and regulations, and evict chemical warehouses from buildings where people lived.
Industrial facilities can’t legally exist in areas that are zoned residential, said Mohammed Manjur Morshed, an assistant professor of urban planning at Khulna University of Engineering and Technology.
“This type of thing happens, there’s a big initiative to move everything out, and then after some time people forget about it and the government is really not interested any more. It’s like that,” Morshed said.
In 2014, three people were killed and three others severely burned when a perfume warehouse on the third floor of a building in Chawkbazar caught fire. The following year, a fire gutted eight plastic factories.
Morshed said government regulations are sufficient, but are routinely flouted in Chawkbazar. “This is a historic area with a distinct culture,” he said. “They are not really abiding by the government’s rules.”
The newer northern half of Dhaka, where many famous fashion brand factories are located, contrasts greatly with the southern half that includes Chawkbazar.
“As the area was developed continuously, there is very high population density and haphazard growth,” said Shafiq-Ur Rahman, an urban planning professor at Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka.
“You need to consider preservation to maintain the heritage,” he said, “but this is not the first time. We have an unfortunate history, and we need in redeveloping to figure how to provide services, like access for firefighters.”
Denizens of the Muslim-majority nation throng to Chawkbazar each year for Mughal foods to celebrate iftar, when Muslims break their fast during Ramadan.
In the festive atmosphere, makeshift stalls and itinerant vendors sell spices, sweets, minced mutton, kebabs and other delicacies in tight passageways teeming with the faithful.
Thousands of animals are slaughtered in the open during Eid-ul-Azha, a sacrificial festival, near Chawkbazar Shahi Mosque.
A government eviction drive in Chawkbazar and other areas of Old Dhaka to clear makeshift stalls from walkways was met with protests last May on the eve of Ramadan by business owners and residents.
According to local reports, some 500 illegal stands were evicted from the narrow streets. In response, hundreds of legal shops closed in protest.
On Thursday afternoon, shops had opened and the streets were crowded in much of Chawkbazar, outside a police cordon where authorities continued to comb through the destruction left by the blaze.
The fire was about 500 meters (550 feet) away from Dhaka’s 18th-century Central Jail, a former Mughal fort where ex-Prime Minister and opposition leader Khaleda Zia has been held since February last year on corruption charges. Since 2016, the jail has only been used to hold opposition figures, and Zia is currently the only inmate. It was not threatened by the fire.
Schmall reported from New Delhi.