A woman is screaming in despair, her face contorted in agony, the helplessness evident in her cries. It was as if someone close to her had died.
It was true, her dreams of a better life with her daughter had died in the fire that gutted the Jhilpar slum in Mirpur on Friday (August 20).
Lipi had lived in the slum for fifteen years but it took only a few hours to ruin everything. Her wails filled the acrid smelling air, “What am I going to do now? How am I going to survive?”
The fire, which affected some 3000 families, burned 500-600 shanties to ashes. With no home, food or money, these people are now living under the open sky.
We could blame it on the gas pipe leak, on the densely built rooms, on negligence of the slum dwellers, but slum fires in the capital are alarmingly frequent.
In June this year, a slum fire in Bhatara, destroyed 100 homes. Last year, a massive fire destroyed 18,000 houses in a Karwan Bazar slum.
In 2017, 500 houses were ruined by fire in Karail slum, and the year before, one of the biggest slum fires in this same slum wrecked 4000 shanties.
Slums are dirty, riddled with diseases, both physical and social. They give birth to petty crimes yet the slums are a sign of our thriving informal sector.
Slum economies are an important part of the bigger urban economy because slum residents make up a significant part of the informal labor force.
According to a Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) survey in 2014, approximately 2.23 million people live in slums across Bangladesh.
This mix of unskilled and semi-skilled labour can only afford living in one-room housings or tin-sheds, which are our slums.
These labourers or slum residents, who are generally looked down upon, are the reasons why we get to live a life full of privileges such as house help, private chauffeurs and most importantly, rickshaw pullers.
That is not all; the slums are a source of illegal income for some people with powerful connections.
The electricity, water and gas bills from Jhilpar slum in Mirpur alone used to come to a staggering one and a half crore taka. The government used to receive only a meagre amount and the rest went to local goons and politicians.
Usually when an accident such as a fire takes place, the role of the slum owners remains shrouded in mystery, and it is very rare that fingers are pointed at them. The powerful slip through the many social loopholes, and the helpless remain destitute.
The FR Tower fire this year took so many lives that the name itself still makes us shudder. Although it was on a relatively on a small scale, this incident taught us what utter negligence can cause.
However, these slum fires, which some would like to term as arson, keep happening, and no solid initiatives are taken to prevent them in the future.
Being poor or underprivileged is certainly no criteria to be disregarded by the authorities. In fact, it is the other way round. The slums should be well equipped with fire extinguishers, and strict measures should be taken while building them.
Every slum fire should have been a wakeup call, but it seems that the responsible parties are still snoozing through the accidents.
For a country to progress as a whole and to reach those milestones as a developed nation, we cannot exclude the very people who run our households, our cars and our lives.
Despite their unrelenting service, they remain the most vulnerable in our society. A fire breaks out and within minutes and hours, they lose everything.
Nevertheless, life moves on, they scramble back to rebuild their scanty homes, and their exploitation continues. We, the so-called civil part of society, should be held accountable for this unholy cycle that engulfs their lives.