The latest news from Savar, Bangladesh, as found in the Daily Star at 6:00 AM US Eastern DST on May 15, 2013, is that 1115 dead bodies have been recovered from the debris of a collapsed eight-story building, and 12 people died in the hospitals after being rescued alive (1). While 2,438 people have been pulled alive, at the end of the rescue operation the number of victims unaccounted for remains uncertain. (While this blog was originally written on April 26, 2013, the casualty figures in this paragraph have been updated on May 15, 2013.)
This horrific disaster of building collapse took place in the morning of April 24 in Bangladesh (evening of April 23 in the USA). By all accounts, this catastrophe was avoidable, even if one looked at the problem without digging into the bigger picture. According to a Daily Star report, cracks developed on some pillars and on a few floors of the building the day before (2). That caused panic among the people working there. They rushed out of the building, and some even got injured in the process. The industrial police visited the building that day, and asked the building authorities not to open the building for business; but that advice was ignored, according to the director of the local unit of the industrial police.
In spite of the warning sign the day before, the building was not only open, the bosses of the garment factories located there practically forced the workers to be there in that fateful morning. The factory bosses threatened the poor workers of deducting their salaries for three days if they did not work a single day (2). At least in one case, the workers were threatened with not getting the salary they had already earned if they were absent from work (3).
All indications are that the poor workers who made less than a quarter of a US dollar an hour, and desperately needed the money, would have stayed away from that building on April 24, had the factory managers not threatened to penalize them unduly and excessively. Thus, this was a disaster that did not have to happen, had the factory authorities cared at all about the safety of the workers, had the factory authorities played fairly and allowed the workers to remain absent in the face of a probable serious danger in that building.
Looking a little further into this disaster, the building was illegal, and constructed poorly and without any permit from the appropriate governmental office (4).
Building illegally and without caring about safety is an endemic problem in Bangladesh. In much of Dhaka, the access roads to high-rise buildings are so narrow that even the emergency vehicles could not reach them readily. Visiting there from any sensible country of the world would make one wonder if a millionaire were to have a heart attack sitting in his home, how likely is it that he would see an ambulance or get to a hospital? Encroachment of roads illegally is a common problem in Bangladesh. The building owners seem to have no sense of responsibility about the safety of not only the community in which they live, but also of themselves. Of course, they do their illegal constructions by either paying bribes to authorities, or showing their muscle power based upon political affiliations. Corruption is a chronic national disease of Bangladesh.
In the case of the Savar building that collapsed on April 24, 2013, the owner is a leader of the youth wing of the ruling Awami League party, as per most newspaper reports. He is widely alleged to have used his political affiliation to defy the building regulations and authorities. After the colossal tragedy there, the Home Minister of the country most strangely suggested that the opposition strikers might have had something to do with it (5). According to him, the opposition party supporters shook the gates and pillars of the building in that morning, causing it to crumble! This absurd implication has been widely seen as trying to soften the blame on the building owner, who is a member of the Home Minister’s party.
It is somewhat refreshing to see the Prime Minister of Bangladesh vowing to punish the criminals irrespective of their political affiliations (6). However, it is puzzling that she apparently did not find the name of the building owner in the list of her party leaders of that area. Let us keep our fingers crossed about the Prime Minister to break a trend, and to actually punish the criminals with no delay, no matter what party they came from.
The Prime Minister was visibly saddened by the colossal tragedy (7). However, interestingly, she appealed to people for not constructing on water bodies, as the collapsed structure in Savar was built by filling a pond. She evidently did not realize that the world has adequate technology to construct safe buildings on water bodies. It is not a matter of building or not building on water bodies, it is a matter of doing the job right.
Of course after the Savar disaster, there is a lot of talk about punishing the criminals, even when the building owner and the factory authorities are absconding, and even when the Home Minister seems to be trying to be soft on the building owner. However, it is unlikely that all the culprits would be immediately caught by the law enforcers of Bangladesh. After all, they did manage to go into hiding.
Punishments of the Savar criminals or not, the bigger question is, where were the city authorities when the illegal building was standing there? Was there any authority that oversaw the safety of that building? Is there any authority in the country that ensures safety of buildings? Is there any authority that does not compromise safety by taking bribes and to please corrupt and irresponsible politicians?
Irresponsibility and corruption go hand in hand. They are the two heads of the same monster. They are the chronic diseases of Bangladesh. They have been showing their ugly faces recently in quite a few remarkable ways, such as irregularities in the verdicts against the war criminals, atrocities on innocent and non-violent religious minorities, crippling of the economy by barbaric enforcements of hartals, the building collapse on April 24, and harassment and imprisonment of innocent and free-thinking bloggers.
The question is how is Bangladesh going to put a lid on the endemic irresponsibility-corruption duo? Without much conviction and success on that, Bangladesh will continue to remain poor, and to bleed in previously seen and unseen ways, no doubt about that. Savar was only a flare-up. Until the disease of irresponsibility-corruption is controlled, tragedies of the Savar proportion will continue to happen in Bangladesh, unfortunately but not unpredictably.
About the Writer: Sukhamaya Bain is a US citizen who was born in a place that is a part of today’s Bangladesh. He earned a Ph.D. degree in Chemistry in 1987, and currently works for the US federal government, evaluating chemistry. While being a scientist by profession, he believes that societal justice is vital for the well-being of mankind. Thus, he occasionally writes on sociopolitical issues.