Published: Friday, May 3, 2013

Cover Story

A BUGS’ LIFE

How many lives were lost in the April 24, 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza? Media, rescue workers, government officials and garment authorities can only give estimates, but we will never know the real figure for sure. This is not the first time that lives have turned into uncertain numbers in Bangladesh. The same thing happened in the case of Tazreen Fashions, Spectrum Garments and many other garments factory accidents that occurred due to negligence or non-compliance of basic safety rules. Investigation of the fire incidents mostly found factory gates locked, inadequate fire exits and unused, rusted fire extinguishers. In the case of building collapses, faulty design and unauthorised construction were the main causes. The owners in most of the instances were well-aware of the irregularities.

How many of these buildings have been approved by the proper authority? Photo: Prabir Das

How many of these buildings have been approved by the proper authority? Photo: Prabir Das

cs02The same was true for the owners of the five garments factories housed in Rana Plaza. They knew about the cracks in the building. On April 23, the day before the building crashed down, they had stopped production when cracks appeared in two of the pillars of New Wave Bottoms Ltd, situated on the 2nd floor of the building in Savar.

Sharmin Akhter, one of the luckiest survivors of the collapse, rescued two and half hours later from the 7th floor of the building, sheds light on why the garments factories were operating on that fateful day. Sharmin, a quality inspector of New Wave Style Ltd, says the workers were told to go home around 9 am on Tuesday, but asked to report back during lunch. At that time, she did not know the reason for the sudden recess. “When we came back after lunch, everyone was saying that the factory is closed today and we have to come back the next morning,” she says. The production manager had directed the quality controller to make this announcement among the workers, she adds.

The following morning Sharmin, her brother, sister and mother, reported to their respective workplaces in Rana Plaza. In the meantime, they had heard about the cracks in the building. “My father had warned us and told us to go up only if everyone does,” she says adding how the workers of the five garments factories were hesitant about going inside the building on Wednesday morning. Sharmin was, in fact, half and hour late and heard the production manager announce on a mic that plaster from a pillar had crumbled off. It was not anything of big concern, the announcement assured.

Trapped under the rubble or rather the gross negligence of our system?  Photos: Palash Khan

Trapped under the rubble or rather the gross negligence of our system? Photos: Palash Khan

Other survivors Nasima, Sathi and Shakil rescued from the 5th, 6th and 7th floor, share similar stories. They claim that their line chief, production manager or quality controller had assured them that nothing was wrong. “Our production manager said engineers had assured them that there was no problem, some plaster had just come off,” Sathi recalls lying in the emergency ward of Enam Medical College and Hospital, with a pelvic bone fracture.

cs04Why could the garment factory owners not respond to Tuesday’s warning the way Brac Bank authorities had? The Savar bus-stand branch of Brac Bank, situated on the 2nd floor of the building suspended its operation and thus saved the lives of its 11 employees. What would happen if the same were done by the owners of the five garments factories? Is the cost of cancelled orders more than the value of 3122 workers (Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association estimate) who worked in the five garments? Probably so.

In a press briefing, following the collapse, BGMEA president said that the association had asked the owners of the five factories to discontinue operations until further examination by qualified engineers. However, factory owners opened their factories relying on assurance of the building owner, Mohammad Sohel Rana. He told them that the municipality engineers had checked and certified that the building was okay.

Following the incident, two cases have been filed so far. One is against Sohel Rana for the structural fault found in the building and constructing the structure using substandard materials and violating the building code. The other is against Rana’s father Abdul Khalek and the owners of the five garment factories housed in the building, for loss of lives and damages.

Rushing to save lives. Photo: Palash Khan

Rushing to save lives. Photo: Palash Khan

Arrested by Rapid Action Battalion five days after the collapse, Rana told journalists at the RAB headquarters that the owners pressurised him to keep the building open as shipments would be cancelled if the factories remained closed even for a day.

The owners of these five garment factories Anisur Rahman, Aminul Islam, Bazlus Samad and  Mahmudur Rahman Tapash along with two engineers of Savar municipality have been arrested on charge of playing down the danger from the cracks that developed in the nine-storey building. Now the question remains if justice will be served after the arrest.

Though Rana Plaza was not the first building crash in Bangladesh's history, the rescue efforts question our readiness for such a catastrophe. Photo: Prabir Das

Though Rana Plaza was not the first building crash in Bangladesh’s history, the rescue efforts question our readiness for such a catastrophe. Photo: Prabir Das

Judging by past records, only the owners of Smart Export Garments are in jail on the charge of murder. This factory has no affiliation with Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA). Although the inquiry team formed by the home ministry blamed the factory owner of Tazreen Fashions Delwar Hossain for gross negligence and recommended a case be filed against him and ten other officials, till date only a case against several unnamed persons has been filed in Ashulia thana in relation to the incident. Shahriar Hossain Sayeed, owner of Spectrum Sweater Industries, arrested for murder due to negligence, was later released on bail.

The construction of the nine-storey Rana Plaza started in 2006 -2007 without any permission. In 2008, a layout plan was approved by engineers of Savar municipality. Interestingly, in a report by The Daily Star, Rajuk Chairman Nurul Huda said that no municipality within 1,528 square-kilometres around Dhaka has the authority to permit any building construction. Rana Plaza’s owner Sohel Rana had not obtained any approval from Rajuk to construct the building, even the layout plan approved by Savar municipality was only for constructing four- storeys.

Going back to 2005, the nine-storey Spectrum Sweater factory had approval for building only four-storeys and it was taken not from Rajuk but from Savar Cantonment board. After the Spectrum incident, on April 13, 2005 BGMEA made it mandatory for new garment factory owners to take Rajuk approval of their factory buildings to become a member of the association and factories located outside Rajuk authority were to get approval from structural engineers or certified companies to get the membership.

Former BGMEA chairman Anwarul Alam Chowdhury Parvez says even an existing factory moving to a new premise must inform BGMEA about the shift and take approval for that location. The five garments factories in Rana Plaza showed the approval given by Savar municipality, he adds.

Although construction of buildings in the municipalities surrounding Dhaka falls under Rajuk’s jurisdiction, lack of manpower in Rajuk makes it difficult for this regulatory body to execute this task. In a bid to relieve Rajuk of its massive workload, municipalities have been allowed to give building construction approval, under the condition that they have a team of experts including town planners, structural engineers, designers and architects to carry out the task. The Savar municipality only has a small wing comprising of two engineers for approving building layout plans. In a report by The Daily Star Sub-Assistant Engineer Alam Mia of Savar municipality informed that their responsibility lies only in approving the layout plan for the 10-storey commercial building, not in supervising the construction.

In summary, the garment factory owners blame the owner of Rana Plaza, who got the faulty design of the building approved by an unauthorised body, which in turn, were given the task to relieve another regulatory body that has been short of manpower for years. So who do we blame now?

The chain of blame seems to point back to the victims who become sandwiched and burnt every time a building collapses or a garments factory catches fire. The charge against these people is simple — they are poor and their life has no value. It is as if it is their fault that they take jobs in garment factories for a better living or promise of a better future. Though unknowingly they earn huge foreign exchange revenue for the country’s economy, it hardly trickles down to their pockets.

The survivors have to live with the memory of this nightmare for the rest of their lives. Photo: Palash Khan

The survivors have to live with the memory of this nightmare for the rest of their lives. Photo: Palash Khan

Sharmin, her brother Shohag Khan and her sister Sonia Akhter aged 21, 18 and 15 respectively made the same mistake as their co-workers. They recently moved to the suburb of Dhaka, Savar from their homestead in Bagerhat, Khulna. “We left our village home because my father’s political enemies were making it difficult for us to stay there,” she says. Shohag was the first to come to Savar and took the position of quality inspector at New Wave Style LTd to pay for his university education at a local night college. Soon Sharmin joined her brother in the same factory, hoping to earn money for her college education next year. The youngest, Sonia, followed her siblings’ footsteps and joined the factory after completing her Junior School Certificate examination.

Photo: Prabir Das

Photo: Prabir Das

“You see we wanted to help out our parents in coping with the expenses after moving to Dhaka,” says Sharmin, sitting between the two hospital-beds, where her brother and sister lay with multiple injuries in their head, neck and waist. Though the three siblings were rescued, Shahanara, their mother, a worker of Phantom Apparels of the 4th floor is still missing. While Sharmin attends her siblings at the hospital, their father is searching desperately for Shahanara; amidst the concrete debris of Rana Plaza, among the dead bodies heaped at the Adharchandra High School, public hospital’s morgue and in the wards of every single hospital and clinic where the survivors and dead of the Savar tragedy have been taken. With rescue operations coming to an end, the hope to find Shahanara is getting bleak. Just like the burnt workers of Tazreen and all the others who were murdered in their workplace due to someone else’s negligence, Shahanara and thousand others who could not come back from the cemented grave of Rana Plaza, have taken the burden of the blame game again.

The search and longing for the loved ones never end … Photos: Palash Khan

The search and longing for the loved ones never end … Photos: Palash Khan

But what happens to those who survive the sentence of such social corruption? To sixteen-year-old Nasima, who lives with her parents and two siblings in Savar, the TK 4,450 she earned by working at Ether Tex Ltd, on the fifth floor of Rana Plaza, means a lot. Even the attendance bonus of TK 300 is important which is why she risked her life to enter that building on the fateful morning of April 24. The garment factory job is not a luxury for these young girls and boys. They have little choice but to go back to work in garments factories, fully aware that their lives are of little value to the society.

A collapse caused by corruption and greed. Photo: Prabir Das

A collapse caused by corruption and greed. Photo: Prabir Das

The relatives who came to collect the dead bodies from Rana Plaza’s rubble received Tk 20,000. The ones who have been crippled and receiving treatment are getting ad-hoc financial help from government and private sources. And those countless and now nameless bodies that remain trapped inside the concrete mess, collectively being termed as missing persons, the price of their lives is yet to be fixed. We still do not know how many people were inside the Plaza on that Wednesday morning. No comprehensive list of victims, rescued or recovered dead bodies has yet been prepared. In the past, absence of such a database has slowed down the compensation and rehabilitation process. Even after four months, many families and survivors of Tazreen Fashion are yet to get the promised compensation. Though compensation will never make up for the lost limbs or lives of the hundreds or the horrific memories carried by the survivors, we can only hope that unlike their predecessors they will get justice both in legal and financial terms. For once let us not forget and allow such mass murders to take place again.

Condolence or compensation is NOT enough. Photo: Rashed sumon

Condolence or compensation is NOT enough. Photo: Rashed sumon