LAHORE: The whole Walled City is at risk of fire disaster because the area is full of underground caverns packed with chemicals and other dangerous raw materials, the Ravi Town municipal officer (TMO) has warned.

TMO Ahmad Kamal told The Express Tribune that he had surveyed the Walled City two years ago and found 2,800 godowns, built illegally underneath not just houses but also roads.

“These godowns are packed with chemicals and other dangerous raw materials. They were built without adequate safety measures,” he said. “The practice of building godowns in residential buildings has increased rapidly in the past few years, and we see the result in these fires.”

Kamal was referring to the fire at Bahria Tower in Shah Alam Market on Monday, in which at least three people were killed and dozens injured. Fireworks stored in shops in the tower are believed to have had a role in the intensity of the blaze, which lasted at least 30 hours.

“The construction of plazas at main Shah Alam Market stopped after the High Rise Building Commission was formed but it did not stop in the Walled City,” Kamal said.

He said there were approximately 1,000 buildings under the city district government and 200 under the LDA in the Walled City, and all of them were built illegally or violated some regulations. He said building inspection was a tough job in the Walled City, because they were short on manpower and the builders did not listen to the inspectors.

For example, the owners would get approval for a building plan with only two storeys, but would eventually construct an 8-storey plaza with two basements. “They work over the weekend when inspectors are off.

They will start constructing a storey on Saturday night and complete it by Monday morning to avoid interruption from the administration,” he added.

Inspectors also lacked the manpower to enforce building rules, he said.
“It is not possible for us to stop the construction of buildings either for residential or for commercial purposes with such a small force. Many times we face threats to our lives while conducting operations to stop illegal construction or to demolish illegal plazas as the building owner reacts strongly,” he said.

Kamal said usually no or few policemen accompanied anti-encroachment operations, again leaving inspectors at the risk of being beaten by angry crowds.

He said many plazas had been built in congested streets too narrow to accommodate the machinery needed to demolish buildings. He said demolishing the plazas manually was difficult because of the dilapidated condition of the nearby buildings. “There is always this fear that the other buildings might fall down while you are demolishing another building,” he added.

District Coordination Officer Ahad Cheema has formed two committees after the Shah Alam Market fire. One committee, headed by the executive district officer (Revenue), will assess the damage done by the fire.

The other , headed by the EDO (Works and Buildings), will report on the dangerous buildings in the area.