Dhaka slum blaze highlights fire risk across Bangladesh, India and Pakistan

Factory death traps, poorly trained firefighters make lethal mix in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2012, 5:25am


Blazes like the one in Dhaka on Saturday are sadly all too frequent around south Asia.

In September, in one of the worst incidents of its kind, 289 died in a fire in Karachi.

The same month, 40 were killed during a blaze at a fireworks factory in the state of Tamil Nadu, in south India.

Several factors combine to make death traps of factories across south Asia. Often, exits are padlocked, basements are used as storerooms for highly flammable raw materials, and fire escapes are missing. Smoke alarms and sprinkler systems are rarely heard of.

Fire is a constant hazard in the grossly overcrowded poor neighbourhoods of emerging world cities. At least 11 women and children died in a blaze at one of the Bangladeshi capital's biggest slums last week, thought to have started in a rickshaw workshop.

There is little proper zoning, so industry is sited in residential areas. More than 120 died in June 2010 when a fire destroyed six buildings including a factory in Dhaka. Cooking for a wedding was a possible source.

Then there is the ill-preparedness. Fire services are poorly equipped and trained, and public awareness is low.

"The workers are not trained to use extinguishers. The fire drills are limited to attaining only the benchmark of compliance," according to Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers' Solidarity.

Wafer-thin profit margins exacerbate the problem. After the Karachi fire, Pakistani manufacturers blamed overseas competition, including from Bangladesh, for unsafe cost-cutting.

Babul Akhter of the Bangladesh garments and industrial workers' federation said mid-level managers were mostly concerned with how many clothes could be produced, not safety.

Then there is corruption, which means inspectors are easily paid off. The ease of hiring and firing, and mobility of the workforce, means "no employeeemployer relationship", said Subhash Bhatnagar, of the Unorganised Workers Association in Delhi. "There is no sense of safeguarding their well-being."

Construction sites present another major problem. Bhatnagar estimates that hundreds die every year in Delhi alone, and thousands across the rest of India and Bangladesh, in building-site accidents.