The fire that broke out in Baunibandh slum in the early hours of Friday may have spared the lives of its 350 residents (at least) but they have left them without a roof over their heads, completely destitute and shivering in the winter chill. Their homes and belongings, including their cash savings, are all lost. A cow and its calf also perished in the flames. This is hardly a novel tragedy but one that keeps repeating itself over and over. Only a few days earlier, a massive fire broke out in Mohakhali's Sat Tola slum gutting 100 shanties and shops—leaving the dwellers with nothing.
The question we must ask is, what happens to these hapless people? Where do they go?
The report in this paper described how little children, young adults and the elderly are all huddled in the premises of Ananda Niketon Model School, which has given them temporary shelter. It is heartbreaking to read about many of them desperately rummaging through the charred debris to retrieve whatever they can. Most often it is a futile search.
We hope that the authorities will provide quick relief to these people. Apart from food, temporary shelter and sanitation facilities, they need warm clothes on an urgent basis. In fact, the government should start a drive to distribute warm clothes and blankets to these people, who have little to protect themselves from the cold. People in general can pitch in by donating warm clothes, but this requires efficient management by the authorities.
These are of course merely relief efforts that should be taken on an emergency basis. But the larger problem is how these people can be rehabilitated. The government must help them with financial and other support to rebuild their homes and initiate projects where they can stay permanently. This applies to all slum dwellers who, as we know, live in precarious conditions, always vulnerable to disasters like this. They are also at the mercy of local thugs who control everything in the slums, from rent to illegal utility connections. The authorities must make efforts to provide safe, low cost housing to all slum dwellers in the country. The slums in this city are a testament to the apathy with which the authorities, and society in general, treat the people living in them, despite their contributions to the economy. It is not just a humanitarian issue that needs immediate attention but one that needs to be addressed if we are serious about realising our development goals.