Published: Saturday, May 18, 2013

Man-made disaster: Policy and practice

IN recent years, man-made disasters have become common news in Bangladesh. Since Bangladesh offers the cheapest labour in the world, it attracts the investors to establish labour extensive industries like readymade garment, leather and footwear, ship breaking and ship building. Garment factories are the major preference as their contribution to the total GDP is 10.5% and around 80%. to national export earnings. Besides, this sector provides direct employment to about 3.5 million people, most of whom are female. Bangladesh enjoys the GSP that ensures easy access to the US, Canada and EU markets. Our major buyers are Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Reebok, Nike, Gap, PVH, Perry Ellis, Tesco, Carrefour, Kids Headquarters, Inditex (Zara), Li & Fung, H & M, JC Penny, Marks & Spencer, C & A from Europe, USA and other developed countries.

In view of the fact that readymade garment industry is not considered to be heavy industry, proper and sufficient care is not given to its vulnerability to fire and building collapse, which are the common industrial accidents here. The data say that 130 workers died and 950 workers were injured in 2005 from fire incidents only. Since 1990, more than 700 people have lost their valuable lives in different garment factory fires. A shocking situation was caused when a building collapsed in Savar, causing the death of about a thousand people and wounding a significant number. The US, Canada and EU countries have started pushing Bangladesh to ensure workplace safety to get more investment in garments industries and apparel exports to those countries.

Though fire is a common occurrence in many countries, the number of casualties is higher in Bangladesh than in any other country. The main reason for so death is suffocation during the blaze. Insufficient emergency exits, inadequate training on the how to use the fire extinguishers, no emergency alarm system, inaccessible or locked main gate, irregular safety drills, and lack of awareness of the owners and workers alike worsen the situation.

In case of man-made disasters, especially of industrial accidents, the government has formulated a number of policies to cope with different stages of disaster. Thus, the rules exist in the country but the problem remains in their implementation. A good number of industries definitely follow the fire-safety measures, though there are some RMG factories that are reluctant to follow the measures stringently. One of the prerequisites of export of RMG to EU and USA markets is to follow the measures fully. But the thoughts of many garments owners’ are centred on making profits only.

Now we are going to correlate our practice with the different stages of disaster management. Theoretically, the first stage of disaster management is ‘mitigation.’ The government has formulated National Building Code, 1993, which clearly lays out the safety and security measures for industrial sector establishments. However, non-compliance of building code is the major problem with the industry owners, and the supervising authority also turns a blind eye in this regard. The implementing authority is diversified in the code, resulting in lack of monitoring and increasing the transformation of residential buildings into industrial ones.

The second stage is ‘preparedness,’ which includes disaster prevention drill and practice of other disaster prevention measures. Fire protection drill is common in practice as this is one of the prerequisites of export to the EU and USA markets. Nevertheless, the composite disaster prevention drill is merely practiced in different industries. Therefore, the garments’ workers are not aware about diverse effects of disaster that causes panic and results in higher number of causalities. Besides, free phoning facility and fire alarm system are yet to be developed in Bangladesh.

The third and penultimate stage is ‘response,’ which includes both from the government and from industry owners. In practice, the response from the ministries is prompt, however, lack of co-ordination between different ministries sometimes slows down the response. Lack of modern equipment and well trained fire fighters hinders the quick response to a disaster. Narrow roads and lack of evacuation space often prevent the rescue team from getting quick access to the place of the disaster.

The fourth and last but not the least stage of disaster management is recovery. Usually recovery is done by Fire Service and Civil Defense Force (FSCDF). In recent years, rejuvenation of this force has started, though the man-power is not yet enough to face a medium level disaster. It also needs modernisation in terms of equipment and use.

In a developed country like Japan, the policy makers revise the existing policy in case of any natural or man-made disaster after checking the gaps within the existing policy in different stages of disaster management. Though disasters come with new dimensions they cause huge loss of lives and properties, the Japanese ensure that there are no more casualties due to the same gaps. Sharing experience with the rescue team may help the government to chalk out the list of the essential equipments that need to be purchased immediately. If the experience of Spectrum Garments collapse rescue works had been evaluated, it would have helped the FSCDF and other rescue teams to set a more effective strategy to rescue more lives.

As nobody knows when disaster will strike, we may consider the necessity of sharing their experience to establish a man-made disaster management system to guarantee the safety of the workers, ensure more investment in Bangladesh and increase exports to the developed world.

The writer is Deputy Director, Board of Investment, Prime Minister’s Office, Dhaka. E-mail: ksa_geo@yahoo.com