<%-- Page Title--%> Perspective <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 123 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

September 19, 2003

<%-- Navigation Bar--%>
<%-- Navigation Bar--%>
<%-- 5% Text Table--%>

Let History Not Repeat Itself

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

On October 15, 1985, over 400 students packed the auditorium of Jagannath Hall of Dhaka University -- the main chamber of the former East Pakistan Legislative Assembly -- to watch “Shuktara”, a popular weekly television drama. Even before the first lines had been delivered, 39 of them were killed, and scores others injured, when the roof of the 64-year-old building collapsed.

A dilapidated ceiling of Mohsin Hall.

The building had once been rebuilt and remodelled in 1947 but never since. Rainwater often seeped through the roof and students had repeatedly demanded its repair. All the authorities did was call tenders and order a patchwork method of repair. On September 7 of that year, the “Campus” page of The New Nation featured an article titled “Red Tapism Destroying Jagannath Hall” in which was described the dilapidated state of the building, even warning that it would give way any moment. The then Vice-Chancellor of Dhaka University, Prof Shamsul Haque, visited the hall and instructed the concerned authorities to do “the needful”.

On the day of the tragedy, the building was undergoing another of its patchwork method repairs. The outer coating of the roof had been removed, making it even more permeable to rain which, later seeping through, caused the immediate collapse of the roof.

Proper repair of the building as well as that of other old buildings was always stalled on the ground of fund constraints. Why the building, which was known to be unsafe, was still being used and the students not vacated is a mystery. The fact that the government and concerned authorities were incompetent during the rescue operation comes later.

When the showers hit at around 8:40 p.m., there was a loud bang, the lights went out, and steel trusses, bricks, tiles and iron rods crashed down upon a mass grave. Upon students who, ironically, took shelter from the drizzle in the building. Some who did not even usually watch television but who wanted to relax after exams. Young men who tutored students, while themselves studying, in order to help their families back home. Sons who had promised their mothers they would be back to celebrate Puja in a few weeks. A three-day national mourning was observed after the incident.

Chunks of plaster from the ceilings regularly fall on people. Next time it might be the whole roof.

A little over a month from today, Dhaka University students, for the eighteenth year, will observe a day of mourning for the Jagannath Hall tragedy. As they grieve one tragedy, they wait in the looming shadows of a number of similar ones.

Recent newspaper reports on the condition of the Dhaka University residential halls seem ominously familiar compared to those published prior to the Jagannath Hall incident. According to a number of reports published in The Daily Star, cement plasters in the ceilings of Surya Sen Hall -- built in 1965 and never repaired since -- have loosened at over 100 points in more than 50 rooms. The washrooms are in worse condition. Plasters have fallen on students and staff. An extended roof of the hall auditorium had to be demolished a few months ago because it was feared that it would give way any time. The condition of 18 rooms of Fazlul Haque Hall is also reported to be very bad. The north block of the hall has been sealed off after the authorities spotted cracks. Students say an extension was demolished a few years ago because it was feared that it could collapse any time, and, though reconstruction work has been underway for years, it is still incomplete. At Curzon Hall, the DU engineering division removed five of the nine tumbledown balconies -- which not only added to the traditional beauty of the building but also ventilated it -- as the authorities did not supply funds for renovation.

Maintenance of hall buildings has been non existent for years making the structures dangerious and unlivable.

Buildings need regular maintenance and repair, particularly old ones. Professor Nizamuddin Ahmed of the Architecture Department of BUET in an August 24 news report of The Daily Star said that worn-out buildings are further damaged by the vibration of moving residents inside, making accidents more likely. He also said that chunks of concrete with iron rods will begin to collapse if the damaged structures are not repaired immediately.

Students living in the residential halls have complained about their condition and demanded renovation, even staging demonstrations in front of hall provosts' offices. At a decision of the hall authorities -- apart from the demolition mentioned above -- ceiling fans, which create pressure on the ceilings, have been removed from the rooms of Surya Sen Hall. DU VC, Professor SMA Faiz, has advised students to “remain careful”in order to avoid accident. The university does not have adequate funds to renovate, he also said. While the yearly allocation for repairing the buildings is Tk. 1.5 crore, the amount currently required is Tk. 11 crore.

A university hall bathroom with its door broken and floor full of grime.

As promised by the VC, however, a consultation team from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) has visited Fazlul Haque Hall and submitted a planning report. While DU engineering division sources say that the final report is still pending, BUET sources say they have submitted their final report, recommending demolition and reconstruction of the decayed portions (The Daily Star, September 6).

The same news story quoted engineering office sources as saying that they submit proposals every year for remedial work on the worst buildings, but that they never get the go-ahead because the university does not have enough funds and the authorities are bogged down in bureaucracy.

The whole process is a vicious circle of negligence and carelessness that has and may yet cost many lives. We have all the facts and figures and we have a devastating example. With so many red signals pointing towards tragedy, we hope that the concerned authorities will do everything necessary to avoid it. We have seen it happen before, and we can only hope that history will not again repeat itself so disastrously.



(C) Copyright The Daily Star. The Daily Star Internet Edition, is jointly published by the Daily Star with the technical assistance provided by Onirban.