Vol. 4 Num 94 Fri. August 29, 2003  

'There are no legal bindings to follow building codes' -REHAB president
Excerpts from The Daily Star's (DS) interview with the president of the Real Estate and Housing Association of Bangladesh (REHAB), Towfiq M. Siraj (TMS). The interview was taken by Kaushik Sankar Das

DS: After the recent spate of earthquakes in Chittagong, concern over the highrise buildings in Dhaka has intensified. From that perspective, how would you assure the people of the capital about the safety of living in those buildings?

TMS: Yes a lot has been written in the newspapers ever since the recent earthquake, even before that. Personally I think there is a lot of confusion. First of all, we need to know which types of buildings are vulnerable to earthquake. We can divide the structures into two types -- engineered and non-engineered. By the latter what I am trying to say here is -- who are designing them, who are constructing them. Professional constructors began their businesses only 15 years ago. And they are contributing only 10 per cent of the total construction work. So who are doing the other constructions? Definitely, the private constructors on lands from individual owners. Who would guarantee the safety of those buildings?

DS: But is anyone, whether it's a member of REHAB or a private constructor, following the building codes?

TMS: I would say that REHAB members are very much aware of the quality of their products. But before we point any question to anyone, we need to know more about the 'building codes'. They were initiated in 1993 with the help of foreign experts. But, funnily enough, there are no legal bindings to follow those codes and there are no monitoring authorities either to check whether the codes are being followed or not. In fact there never was any such body in last ten years.

DS: Which means that the danger or risk remains as big as ever?

TMS: Not really. Because the professionals are constructing the highrise buildings in Dhaka and I would like to repeat again that they consist only 10 per cent of the total buildings in the city. All other construction works are being completed through illegal ways. Anyone can get a plan of, say, a seven storied building passed without any trouble. There is no institutional capacity to check this.

DS: Isn't that RAJUK's duty?

TMS: RAJUK'S main role has always been town planning. When its parent body Dhaka Improvement Trust-- popularly known as DIT-- was established in the late fifties, its mandate was to develop the capital as an ideal city. Therefore RAJUK has been carrying that same mantle. But according to the government's new housing policy, private sector would develop the construction sector while the government would work as a helping power. To do that, bodies like RAJUK needs professionals and experts which they lack. Population has grown manifold, but expert manpower has not increased accordingly.

DS: Since there aren't any monitoring bodies, how do you ensure safety and quality to your clients?

TMS: We in REHAB have an unwritten code of conduct in this regard. We are always following the rules, not just the local ones but international regulations as well. I would challenge anyone to prove me otherwise. But I would like to ask here -- who is going to prove me wrong? There aren't any skilled officials in RAJUK, there isn't any system to check any irregularities. And that's why REHAB is planning to put a proposal to the government about forming a new authority urgently. RAJUK, WASA, Titas Gas, DESA -- all service providers could be integrated in it.

DS: But where do the customers, the people, stand in this mess?

TMS: They stand nowhere. All that we can do in REHAB is build trust among the people about our products. We are also trying to create awareness among those who are not members of REHAB. We have about 100 members, but I can't guarantee that all of them are following the codes. At the same time, we have strict criteria for becoming a member. One has to have minimum accountability in order to become a member. But don't forget anyone can become a private developer by obtaining a trade licence from Dhaka City Corporation. So who would control that?

DS: Some of the developers mention in their advertisements that the buildings are earthquake resistant. How and why would one believe that?

TMS: Because we have our reputation at stake here. We wouldn't say or do something that could put us out of business. The point is -- have the codes we are supposed to follow been modified since 1993? No they haven't been. Let me give you an example. Ten years ago, an RCC column was allowed to have a width of 10 inches. But now, according to international standards, an RCC column with less than 12 inches of width is not accepted as earthquake resistant. Do we know about that in Bangladesh? May be I am following it, but what about others? What about those who are supposed to check it?

As professionals, we are trying to follow the international standards. The authority has to realise that the codes need to be reevaluated every year.

DS: What about construction materials? There have been concerns over low quality materials used in construction work.

TMS: It's not our responsibility to ensure quality in construction and building materials. There is a designated government body to do that. If that body certifies a product to be of good quality we will use that product. That doesn't mean we would use products of low quality. If there is a crack in a building, it's us who would lose business. Using good quality product is an integral part of our business. What we actually need is to have a check on the private construction works: Whether they are following the rules, whether the buildings constructed by them are earthquake resistant, whether they know what the codes are in the first place. For that, an umbrella body with representatives from the business, professionals, experts, government officials is a must. This body would be accountable to everyone -- from the government to the people of the country.

Kaushik Sankar Das is an Assistant Editor of The Daily Star.

Towfiq M. Siraj