Savar Tragedy: We Need a Fundamental Shift in Mind-set
by Pavel Hoq for AlalODulal.org
The Savar building collapse last month was a catastrophic event, but it was not the first of such tragedies for us and probably won’t be the last either. Before the nation could recover from the Tazreen Fashion fire incident a few months ago in November 2012, the Rana Plaza collapse shook the country again. And by the time this piece was written, there were already more such news in the media including a Sea-Truck sinking with 100 on board on May 5th, leaving 8 dead and a garments factory fire in Mirpur, Dhaka on May 8th that killed 8 more people.
As we close the rescue and recovery operations at Savar, we should take a hard look at our national mind-set on three very important areas – our perception around safety related compliances, our view on emergency and disaster response mechanisms and finally, our approach towards victim rehabilitation.
We are a nation that pays very little heed to complying with law and regulations in almost every aspect of our lives. Specific to this discussion, compliance with building codes is not something we take very seriously. A casual chat with a professional who is involved in the industry indicated that majority of the residential and commercial buildings in the country do not comply with the laws one way or the other. It probably won’t be a stretch to assume that more than a third of the readers of this article at the moment are sitting in a building that either has more floors than it is approved for, or has some other non-compliant feature such as a protruding balcony on one side of the apartment or an illegally added structure somewhere in the building that pose real dangers for its occupants. And, even if we are aware of such non-compliance, we are probably not thinking of addressing it any time soon. It is important that we start seeing the link between these inactions to the tragedies such as the one that took place at Savar.
When it comes to responding to a catastrophe, we as a nation have thus far taken an ad hoc, more or less unmanaged and decentralized approach. This was also evident during the Savar tragedy. Though the passion and energy of the volunteers during the rescue operation were certainly commendable and the Prime Minister herself claimed this effort to be an example for the world, we do need to recognize the issues around safety and effectiveness of such an operation. It could be argued that, it was the responsibility of the government to conduct this rescue and recovery operation using only trained professionals and not allow ordinary citizens to get involved because of the dangers involved. As concerned citizens, we should look ahead and channel our energy in demanding our government and its respective departments to develop and modernize the state’s emergency response capacities to that end. This is not only because we want to stop seeing our youth put themselves in harm’s way by diving right into the centre of such events, it is also because that would enable us to utilize the benefits of professional training and efficient resource management while ensuring overall safety protocols.
Lastly, after a disaster strikes, our commitment towards helping the victims and the affected population is usually short lived. We see an initial outpouring of financial and other kinds of help but it dies down within a short period of time. As a nation we let the need for long term rehabilitation slip into oblivion. Our government also promises all sorts of help in the initial days, most of which do not eventually see the light of day, or get tied up in bureaucratic red tape. Furthermore, resources often do not reach many of the victims because in the midst of numerous lists and conduits, some always fall through the cracks. To address this, we need a paradigm shift in how we address the victim rehabilitation issue. The government’s emergency response system discussed earlier needs an infrastructural setup that can facilitate coordination and channelling of all private and individual contributions throughout the process and make sure the help reaches the intended recipients in a uniform way. In addition to short term help, we also need to be aware of the need for longer term medical attention for the victims and sustainable rehabilitation of the surviving family members.
The recommendations discussed here may seem ambitious and involved. However it is imperative that we weigh these options against the price we keep paying dearly every so often. As a close friend described it, “We are a nation used to fighting bushfires and when that fire is under control, no one perpetuates the demand to know why the fire started in the first place and how to structurally change the system so that the fire is prevented the next time.” This article argues that it is time that we start addressing these issues and work towards introducing those structural changes. It is time that we start making sure that lessons learnt from such tragedies are neither lost nor forgotten. We owe this to the victims of Rana Plaza.
The author is an international development professional and works for Grameen Intel Social Business Ltd. Opinions expressed here are his own.