The Mirpur slum fire, which razed thousands of homes to the ground on Friday night and rendered their occupants homeless, is a monstrous exemplar of rapid, unplanned housing of the sort being seen in Dhaka and the disaster that it can cause, often with fatal consequences. Details about the fire are still emerging but initial reports suggest that it may have originated from a short circuit. Whatever may have been the source of the fire, questions remain as to how it spread so quickly over such a vast area and whether or not it was stage-managed, as some have speculated. The three-member probe committee, which has been formed to investigate the fire and submit a report within 15 working days, is expected to shed light on these questions and put speculations to rest. The more pertinent issue at the moment, however, is that of the rehabilitation of the fire victims.
The slum was home to mostly low-wage earners, including garment workers, rickshaw-pullers, housemaids and day labourers. Their loss of homes meant that they are now headed into an uncertain future and many families, stripped of all their belongings and despite the temporary shelter offered by the government, might end up living on the streets. Measures should be taken so that they are rehabilitated properly. But there are bigger problems at hand. The Mirpur fire is the latest in a long list of slum fires as well as fires occurring in more developed areas of the city, owing to unsafe housing schemes. Such unplanned housing—without any system in place to detect and suppress fires, among other eventualities—has been known to boomerang on the very residents. We have seen this too many times.
This is, without a doubt, a clarion call for the government and city-planners to undertake a major overhaul of our existing housing policy, especially with regard to low-cost housing and the expansion of slums known for their decrepit, closely packed housing units. The government must make its housing policy more reflective of the dangers of such unplanned urbanisation. It cannot ignore this situation any longer while its human cost continues to rise.