“Burning, Burning, Burning!”

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Mijanur Rahman

“All is aflame .… The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame …. The ear is aflame. Sounds are aflame …. The nose is aflame. Aromas are aflame …. The tongue is aflame. Flavors are aflame …. The body is aflame. Tactile sensations are aflame…. The intellect is aflame. Ideas are aflame ….”, Several months after his awakening, the Buddha delivers this famous Fire Sermon to an audience of 1,000 fire-worshipping ascetics. He used the fire metaphor to explain the kinds of desires, and emotions we are preoccupied with. It was simply a metaphor.

No. The fire I am going to talk about is no longer a metaphor. The metaphor of fire has metamorphosed into a crude hell like very literal reality. “Burning, burning, burning!” The eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body and the intellect of hundreds of garments workers in the the eight-storied building of Tazreen Fashion at Nischintapur near Dhaka Export Processing Zone in Ashulia suffered mortal burn injuries.

We are yet to forget the burning death of eleven people in Hazaribag slums in the early morning hours of 17 November. The cozy early hours of the morning proved to be hours of death to children, mothers and all. Now in Ashulia, we experienced another fire in an altogether different spatio-temporal setting. All were working in their familiar workplace. Suddenly there was fire everywhere. Initially reports poured in of a few deaths caused mainly by the panicky jumping off different floors. Unfortunately, reports were misleading. By the noon today, the rescue team has already recovered 124 dead bodies with many more missing and critically injured.

What makes us ponder over these fire break-outs is that fire is simply breaking out in slums and factories. We have another casualty, another late rescue effort, another government announcement of compensation, and another formal mourning by the parties in power and in the streets. I talked to several people in the morning about this fire casualty and to my utter surprise, one felt nothing and took it as an example of many such events in the garments factories. In an ATM booth, I told an old security guard who was completely unruffled by the information. I looked all around. Everything seemed perfectly normal. The busy vehicles were plying on roads with horns still polluting the acoustic environment. Dusts were still settling on the foods and fruits of the roadside shops. People’s movement was as usual.

The only anomaly was in the media producing live news coverage of the incident. No. Even this is not anomalous as it is their regular job. A few days later, even they will stop talking about it. Anyway, things easily revert back to its former position again in no time. The most important thing is that another fire will break out in another setting with familiar spillovers. People will suffer. This needs serious thoughts.

According to The Prothom Alo reports, the fire broke out at around 7 pm and the fire service workers managed to extinguish it at around 5:55am in the morning. This is a painful telling window of the disastrous inefficacy of our social service organizations. In our country, Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence Department is entrusted with the tasks dealing with fire related incidents. According the organization’s website, there are only 216 fire stations across the country with 19 of these in Dhaka. Moreover, only two of these are in Savar and EPZ regions. Given the number of garments factories and the frequency of the fire break outs in the area, it is understandable that fire service and civil defence department will struggle there.

The Fire Service and Civil Defence Department to be blamed. But the blame must also go to the owners of Tazreen Fashion which literally turned into a fireplace. In principle, every high rising building needs to collect a fire clearance certificate from the Fire Service Department by giving detailed fire security measures. The owners of the buildings need to ensure whether there are any emergency exits or escape routes, fire detection system, location of the control room and the communication system with the control room, the presence of any overhead electronic lines in front of the building, sources of water, water bodies nearby, presence of any dish antenna on the roof, safety lobby, fire preventive doors, availability of fire extinguishers, and the fixed plan for dealing with fire incidents. The fire incident in Ashulia last night shows that no such preemptive measures were available, at least not used if there was any.

According to the fire statistics, there were 9196 and 9310 incidents of fire in 2007 and 2008 respectively. In contrast to these two statistics, there were 12182 incidents in 2009. This increasing number of fire break outs should have made us all realize the tasks of fire fighting. Evidently, this did not happen and in Ashulia we have these dangerous consequences. Fire can occur owing to many different reasons like electric wiring, flammable materials, cigarette ends, suspected arson, playing with fire, agitated mob, heating and cooking appliance. All garments workers should have been made aware of these reasons and the ways to fight them.

We have lost more than hundreds garments workers who used to toil laboriously for the nation’s biggest source of foreign exchange. The time is ripe for full fledged fire fighting training programs in all concerned establishments in general, the garments factories in particular. The time is ripe for a series of investigation in all high rising buildings to ensure that sufficient fire security measures are in place. The time is ripe for sensitizing all nationals to these issues through widespread media coverage. The time is ripe for a campaign on the part of the government in partnership with non-government organizations for the greater interests of the humanity.

In his characteristically brilliant teaching style, the Buddha used the fire metaphor that quickly penetrated to the heart of the audience and the entire audience attained full awakening. Will these literal fires in Ashulia and Hazaribag awaken us to our future course of action in this regard?

The writer is an Assistant Professor of English at Northern University Bangladesh.

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