A major portion of my childhood was spent in Farmgate—my paternal grandmother's place. It was a residential area wedged into the corner of a labyrinth breathing with multi-storey buildings, shops, parlours, salons, warehouses, other settlements, and tall electric transformers. If a car were to ply through the narrow streets, a noisy business would ensue. The vendors would have to find space off the road and the pedestrians would stick their backs to the walls to give way to the car. And if another car were to ply through the opposite direction face-to-face, all hell would break loose.
On bright days, the sentinel concrete buildings looming over the locality wouldn't allow much sunlight to settle on the area. And on gloomy days, the area would remain more gunmetal than others.
As for silence, there was none. It was always either the street hawkers shouting or the mechanical hum of the construction tools.
It was as though not only the land, but also the sky and the silence were getting occupied.
However, the residential area where we lived had a small playground to unwind in. Every afternoon, the kids of the area would gather there and play tag, hide-and-seek, and even cricket. I remember how it had been, looking out the window, the patch of land just being there, undisturbed. Since our room faced the patch of empty land, with no building to block the sky, the sunlight would permeate inside with its full glory. Every time before slowly diving into an afternoon nap, I would stare at the pigeons circling about the sky in a rhythmic pattern. Through the window, even the glassy walls of Bashundhara City would be visible.
Now, 10 years later, the area is no more like that. It is now crammed with buildings, a claustrophobic area. Several buildings, eight-storey each, have bloomed where the playground had been. They had to be bloomed. You know, to do justice to the ancestral lands that had been given to the building raisers.
When the construction work was at its rudimentary stage, I was taken by disbelief. How could they, in such a small area, raise these buildings? The children living there now have no space to play. Those new buildings are so close, one could literally reach the adjacent building by just one little (very little) jump from the respective rooftop railings.
It's as if even the walls have ears now. If a household disharmony takes a distasteful form, the tenants living in the adjacent building will be alarmed without much effort.
Now whenever I visit my grandmother's place, I see those buildings looming large. While staying there, I remain very careful about the curtains while changing my clothes as even a little opening could expose one to the adjacent windows and eyes. As for the window view from our room, a tall building standing close greets us.
Even on bright days, the landscape remains gunmetal. No sunlight passes through the window anymore. No Bashundhara City is visible, no sky and pigeons too.
In this scenario, the only thought that often pervades my mind is if the place is ready to tackle the consequences should a disaster occur. Could the place prevent any accidents? Could it keep its residents safe? Could it not let a fire spread out in case there was to be a fire incident?
On the 21st of February, the Chawkbazar fire incident brought with it (70 or more) charred bodies, properties and many tales of tragedy. A man died with his son in his arms and wife by his side. They were on their way to a party, on a rickshaw. Two brothers never returned after heading out to buy medicines for their parent(s). One man didn't leave his wife and unborn baby when everything around him was burning and crumbling down. A brother died on the eve of his sister's wedding.
Whatever may be the cause of the fire, it quickly spread out to the adjacent settlements, leaving very little scope for many to escape, thanks to the existence of chemical and perfume warehouses.
Nine years back, a similar incident had happened in Puran Dhaka—the same district. After the incident, safety issues had been raised, orders had been imposed, only to reincarnate the deadly tragedy. The authorities in charge hadn't paid attention to the probe committee's words. Had they done so, perhaps we wouldn't have to mark February 21 as yet another tragic day.
In the backdrop of the tragedy, all I can think of is a morbid thought: What if, in the future, fire breaks out in localities similar to the one in Farmgate, where my childhood was spent? Would all the dwellers get to evacuate? Or would the fire spread so quickly that some would keep burning while some would keep dying slowly in a stampede?
Op-eds on this topic will come and go. They will make us feel enraged about the system. But we don't need “only” the anger.
We also need proper engineering and stricter laws to ensure safety. We need space instead of claustrophobic neighbourhoods. We need actions instead of press briefings. We need implementation instead of mere implication.
Blooming buildings upon buildings in crammed neighbourhoods and renting them to tenants will mean nothing in the long run if all are meant to be charred one day, 10 years later or 20.
Dear authorities, let's not flirt with disaster anymore. The city is already thick with red flags. Look around, uproot them.
Shah Tazrian Ashrafi is a contributor to SHOUT, The Daily Star. Email: email@example.com.