<%-- Page Title--%> International <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 121 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

September 5, 2003

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Our Art of Maintaining Nothing


Mahfuz Anam

Last Sunday this paper carried a story of the risk faced by the students of Dhaka University's Surya Sen Hall (dormitory) from possible building collapse or roof cave-in. The reason being that the thirty-six year old building has not been repaired ever. The chief engineer of Dhaka University has said that there is no fund for the purpose.

He has a budget of Tk 1.5 crore and he needs at least Tk. 11 crore annually. A measure of the risk being faced by the students can be gauged by the fact that hall authorities recently decided to take down all ceiling fans from the building to lighten the weight on the roof to prevent it's possible collapse. What can be more indicative of the seriousness of the situation than the above action by the hall administration?

In the face of this stark reality the wise Vice Chancellor of DU has advised the students of the said hall “ to remain careful to avoid accident”. I was wondering what that message means. What can the students do to prevent a roof collapse or a concrete chunk falling on anyone's head while asleep? Does he expect students to each provide bamboo shafts to support their individual roof to “avoid accident”? The extreme callousness of the authorities is further exhibited when he said “I will call the engineers from BUET to inspect the hall and then take the necessary steps.” Why has this been not done already? What is the VC waiting for? Will an accident have to occur and some students have to actually get hurt (and God forbid die) before “necessary” steps are taken? The VC should have called for the BUET experts the very day decision was taken to take down the ceiling fans.

Eighteen years ago the roof collapse of the TV room of Jagannath Hall killed 18 students. That should have been the necessary wake up call for the University authorities to repair at least all residential halls if not every other building. Obviously that has not been the case. We Bangladeshis seem to think that once a building is constructed it will last forever. We have no idea of the need for regular upkeep. Many of us think that maintenance is a luxury we can ill afford, while the reverse is the truth and for which we pay such heavy price.

I must confess that there is a deep sense of personal regret to hear about the dire straits of Surya Sen Hall (named to honour one of the early anti-British freedom fighters). This hall, known in the beginning as Jinnah Hall after Pakistan's founding father (the name was changed during the 11 point movement of 1969), along with its next door neighbour, Mohsin Hall, were the prized residential dorms when we entered the University towards the middle of 1967. Though Salimullah Muslim Hall still enjoyed the most prestige, Surya Sen and Mohsin Halls provided the most attractive all round facilities for the residents. The ground floor had wide corridors, a big dining room and a well lit cafeteria along with a spacious reading room, library and TV room. The only six story dorms till then, they also had-and this was indeed a novelty of the time- elevators, which of course seldom worked. Even the furniture of the waiting room for visiting parents was quite elegant, comfortable and well kept.

Each of these halls enclosed an inner garden where students would gather every evening for the famous Bangali adda or for occasional open air cultural events, which were quite a few in those days. I especially remember the poetry recitation sessions and political discussions that we used to have interspersed with endless cups of tea and occasional hot shingara. Later these inner gardens became the centre points for students' gatherings in the growing anti-martial law struggle, 11 point movements and subsequent independence struggle. Such a life came to an end when the University was attacked by the Pakistani army on the black night of 26th March 1971.

So while I write today of the possible collapse of Surya Sen Hall I cannot but feel deeply sorry about the daily life of today's students compared to the ones we had. Those of us who were non-residents (called attached students) felt envious of our fellow student with their individual rooms (some were double rooms) and independent life in the halls. It was almost a daily ritual for the likes of us to come every evening to either of these two halls and partake of the activities I had mentioned earlier. In those days we used to have a monthly 'feast', dinner, consisting of plain pullao, half chicken, vegetable, and, (it was a big deal then) a bottle of soft drink. We were allowed to bring guests for an additional payment of Tk 10 or something close to it.

Dhaka University has changed a lot. Sadly much of it for the worse. The most regrettable loss is the absence of solidarity among students and teachers. In those days we had our fights with NSF (student front of Ayub Khan's party) and Islamic Chatra Sangha (Jamaat's student party) but they were not 'mortal combats' as they are today (of course with occasional and, I would like to believe, accidental exceptions). Within weeks after we got admitted several of us were locked up in a class room by the NSF to prevent us from participating in our departmental election. Compared to what would happen now it was a most mild affair. Today's student politics consist of mini gun battles and physically driving rival student groups away from the halls and from the whole campus.

Sadder still is the loss of solidarity among teachers. We had quislings in our days too but there was a limit to how far a teacher would go against another. There was a collective pride as teachers of Dhaka University, a pride which no amount of official patronage could buy a teacher's support when it came to the question of honour and dignity of a fellow teacher. Like the roof of the extended auditorium of Surya Sen Hall, this has also collapsed.

I have no idea how long it will take to repair the intellectual and emotional solidarity of the students and teachers. But definitely the roof of the Surya Sen Hall can be done much earlier. The Dhaka University authorities must act immediately if they want to escape from being accused of criminal negligence.


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