Thousands of inhabitants in Old Dhaka’s Shankhari Bazar area and surrounding neighbourhoods are living in old and rundown buildings – some of them built over 100 years ago – putting their lives at great risks as an earthquake with even a moderate intensity can level hundreds of such structures to ground.
Collapse of dilapidated structures, without any quake, is often reported from the Old Town of Dhaka.
On June 9, 2004, a six-storey building in Shankhari Bazar had subsided, claiming as many as 19 lives. The top three floors of the century-old structure were built without government permission.
After the disaster, the Dhaka City Corporation in November 2004 had identified 672 buildings in different areas of the city as ‘vulnerable’. Some 92 of them are at Shankhari Bazar, considered to be a 300-year old urban settlement. But people of the neighbourhood are yet to shift from the risky buildings.
The people living there for generations, mostly belonging to Hindu community, appeared to be unwilling to leave their homes due to different social, religious and economic reasons, according to the residents of the houses and locals.
Disputes among inheritors of a single structure, economic inability to rent a house elsewhere, fear of losing ownership, lack of coordination among government agencies, problems relating to shifting of temples and simple unwillingness were the main explanations, they said.
Some old buildings, including that of 14 Shankhari Bazar, were damaged in the quake that shook the country on September 10.
‘The quake caused collapse of a chunk of the ceiling and cracks in the walls,’ said a resident of the house.
The columns of the building, slightly tilted a few years earlier, have become too weak to hold a three-storey structure. Portion of the ceiling of the ground floor has been supported by bamboo.
A ten-member family is still living in the veritable death trap, which houses a family temple on the second floor, amid fears the structure could collapse anytime.
‘We cannot move from the house as leaving the ‘household deity’ is not permissible,’ said a female member of the family. She also said that shifting it to another place was also not permitted.
The food and disaster management ministry identified the building as ‘very risky’ and ordered its demolition. But the owner could not proceed after demolishing a portion as the housing and public works ministry was not giving permission, said the manager of the house Sukumar Chandra Dey.
‘Though the building is not a declared “heritage”, the public works ministry is not giving permission to demolish it as it is located in the heritage zone,’ he said.
‘We have heard of so many meetings in the ministry, but no decision in a year,’ he added.
A total of 17 such applications have been pending with the ministry, some of them for more than a year, admitted a high official at the public works ministry.
‘The applications would soon be forwarded to the subcommittee dealing with the issue. The committee will then visit the buildings and give permission to demolish the non-heritage structures,’ he added.
Another risky building at Shankhari Bazar (holding number 27) was also partially demolished a few years ago. ‘The rest of the building could not be pulled down because of disputes among the inheritors of the property,’ said a family member.
Arati Pal of Naba Roy Lane, who lives in a government-leased house, said, ‘The family is run by the earnings of my 11-year-old child. We cannot afford to rent a better house elsewhere.’
‘We are well aware of the risks but have no option,’ she said adding that the people who could afford to shift to a better place had already left the rundown houses.
‘The government will soon cancel the lease of the risky and uninhabitable buildings,’ said the deputy commissioner of Dhaka, Md Mohibul Haque.
About rehabilitation of the residents like Arati Pal, the DC said, ‘It is a part of the overall government policy. I have no say on it.’
The DC, however, said a law and policy should be formulated for evacuation and demolition of the unusable buildings as they poses threat to people’s lives.
Earlier in mid-2009, the Dhaka City Corporation identified 93 buildings and sites, mostly in four heritage zones – Shankhari Bazar, Sutrapur, Farashganj and Ramna – as heritage. Most of them are located in the Old Town, said DCC’s chief town planner Mohammad Sirajul Islam.
The city corporation ordered retrofit of the heritage buildings and demolition of the risky non-heritage structures if retrofitting is not possible. The owners have also been asked to knock down the unauthorised floors of the buildings, according to the chief town planner.
No significant move to reconstruct the risky buildings or demolish them has been taken so far by the authorities concerned.