Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The threat of flames

by: Lenka Vojtova

Slums in Bangladesh could be defined by constant and diverse insecurities. In many other countries, the term ‘slum’ is very often used for informal settlements simply because of the lack of construction permits, high density or shelters situated on land not declared as a building site. Most of the slums I have visited in Bangladesh, however, suffer from every indecent living condition one can imagine.

I perceive two different natures of challenges to be faced. Inconveniences falling into the first category are the visible environmental conditions - insufficient or missing sanitation, non-existent drainage system, overwhelmingly high density both of shelters as well as their dwellers, high levels of pollution, and the enumeration could continue even further. The challenges of the second category levitate under the surface, though indiscernible by observing eyes, omnipresent in the mind of the slum dwellers and the most complex to overcome. It is the insecurity of tenure, the fear of eviction and the threat of fire.

As a blaze gutted 47 houses in Rally Bagan, a slum of Narayanganj Municipality, the calendar dated December 24, 2009, and it was two o’clock in the morning. Three people fell victim to the fire; others woke up just in time to save themselves by fleeing their houses. There was neither the time to rescue any belongings nor to think about taking the savings underneath the mattresses or out of the safes as the fire engulfed quickly. The morning saw over 200 flat broke survivors, possessing not more than a single saree or lungi.

Most of the belongings have been burned to ashes.

After 173 years of existence, Rally Bagan is said to be the oldest settlement in Narayanganj and thus, compared to the majority of Bangladesh’s slums, its appearance differs slightly. Already in 1907, a British Jute company had raised brick-made houses for their workers of Bihari and Bengali origin. The houses in each block are of the same age and have a common roof of corrugated iron. Usually, it is light building materials that allow flames to spread quickly through dense slums. Although not obvious at first sight, this was also the cause of the large scale of Rally Bagan’s dreadful incident: the ceiling under the A-shaped tin roof is made of bamboo, which enabled the damaging flames to spread quickly over the adjacent shanties. It was in this fashion that one complete block of houses burned down.

A map of Rally Bagan - the block affected by the fire is highlighted in orange

It took two hours for the fire fighting units to put out the flames whose cause was yet to be investigated. Immediately after the incident, the assumption was that the fire might have originated from a mosquito coil. One month on, none of the neighbours see either the coil, or the electric short circuit or the stove that remained inside the house of the fire-origin as a feasible causation. Few indications suggest a deliberately harmful act, but nobody dares to speak openly about such suspicions. The only words spoken are “Only the victims could tell us the answer...”.

The mystery of sudden combustion is an issue threatening slum dwellers worldwide. It is not only the flammability of the shelters, the narrow slum lanes often not more than two thirds of a meter, the dependence on open fires and the extraordinary density enhancing the fire outbreaks. Slum fires are often anything but accidents. Intended arson can accelerate the eviction process, bypassing the necessity of an official demolition order and reducing the expense of clearing the area as well as providing reimbursements.

Regardless of the cause, however, it is always the poor urban dwellers that are left behind most often without any means of support – neither material nor psychological. During the past six weeks, I have visited the affected Rally Bagan plot three times and each visit has been more disillusioning than the previous one – simply because nothing has changed, nothing moved towards any improvement.

A widow of ten years, Banu Hussain, has lived in Rally Bagan since the very first moment she saw the light of this world. She works in the garments industry earning 2000-2500Tk a month. Her 17-year old son, Sadaim, suffers panic attacks since the fire outbreak. He was working in a factory, earning 1600Tk a month, but his trauma has made it difficult to continue his occupation. Like many of those affected by the fire, both of them are confused by the disorder their daily life turned into.

A puzzled look into the interior of a burned down house.

Pori, her husband and their four children were lucky to find shelter at their relatives’ place. For an outsider, the solidarity among slum dwellers might seem very weak, but after a few questions and a deeper insight it became obvious that neighbours help each other out as much as they are able to. Immediately after the incident, they shared food, helped with basic cleaning and those who could spare some space offered shelter for the time being. Pori explained to me the community’s awareness about its man-power potential to contribute to rebuilding. As most of them have a paid job, they are also ready to take loans. Family representatives meet every week to reach common decisions on steps to be taken next. But even though the longing for a re-established day to day life is strong, the dwellers are understandably debilitated by the disaster and can’t bundle their strength and potential only by themselves. What is missing at the moment is someone to shoulder the responsibility and take over the overall coordination.

It is a puzzle to the academic world, how people can live with hardly any money or any self-produced goods. But they do manage, and the stories of our blog illustrate some impressive ways. However, there are situations requiring a strengthened external intervention. And the consequences of damaging fire outbreaks are one of them...

Link to newspaper article in the Daily Star (25/12/2009): http://www.thedailystar.net/story.php?nid=119172

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