Christiane Amanpour interviewed Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina via satellite a few days ago on the Rana Plaza collapse. The prime minister repeatedly said that “accidents can take place.“ She was right because accidents take place anywhere and anytime all over the world. But the collapse of Rana Plaza was not an accident over which there was no control at public and private levels because ‘building collapse’ and fires in the garment sector during the last 13 years have been occurring at regular intervals.
Rana Plaza was approved for construction as a five-storied building but four more floors were added to it without any approval from the government agency. This lapse went unnoticed. It is here that the prime minister’s assertion was far from the ground reality. Amanpour asked the prime minister whether this lapse was overlooked as the owner of Rana Plaza was connected with the party in power. The prime minister denied this allegation forcefully and said that as soon as she came to know about the collapse she directed the AL students’ wing of the locality to rush to the spot. Here also, I feel she did not act with wisdom.
During the interview, the prime minister at times could not maintain her composure and at times she was on the defensive, while replying to the interviewer. Amanpour said that they wanted to send representatives to Dhaka to report the accident first-hand but the Bangladesh Embassy in the US did not provide them any visas. In this connection, the prime minister asserted that there was press freedom in Bangladesh and at the same time also mentioned that every country has rules and regulations to govern the visa regime.
I think Bangladesh lost a golden opportunity to use CNN, a multilingual TV channel, for a wider coverage of the tragedy. This, along with the prime minister’s appeal, could impress upon the big buyers that they should pay more for purchasing garments from Bangladesh, which can help the garment producing factories pay more wages to their workers and take steps for safety, security, fire fighting arrangements and other issues. As a matter of fact, it would have been proper if, instead of refusing visa to CNN, the international electronic media were encouraged to send their reporting teams to the site. This way, the prime minister’s appeal to the international buyers for higher prices could be widely publicised. This did not happen because the information department of the government was perhaps not experienced in this matter. On the other hand, the home minister turned down the offer of international technical assistance. This was none of his business.
The prime minister said that the government was looking into the causes of the accident and had set up inquiry committees and authorised certain government institutions for taking legal actions in the matter. But the past records of handling such situations show that the government and the agencies become alert instantly but, as days pass by, their agility and ability to make amendments to the law and in administration of the law recedes.
It should be remembered that Bangladesh is not the only country in the world which, due to large scale unemployment, can offer cheap garments. Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and some African countries are supplying garments at highly competitive prices. It is, therefore, proper that the government and the private sector must act as good marketing and sales persons while dealing with not only the buyers but also the media, which have international appeal and influence on the big business houses abroad. If the foreign exchange earned annually from the garment sector is not available in the near future, because of inept handling of incidents like Rana Plaza, I think the finance minister will find it difficult to present the budget for the year 2013-2014, and we may face a situation when millions of garments workers will be on the streets shouting various slogans which may not be palatable.
Lastly, we must not forget that our case for GSP facility by the US is pending final hearing. The garment factory owners particularly are keeping their fingers cross as various actions by the Bangladesh government have already irked the US administration, it is learned reliably.
The writer is Editor, The Travel World.