Monday, December 17, 2007

Careless deaths in Bangladesh

Official failures lead to workers' deaths
SYLHET, Bangladesh, Dec. 17
Source: UPI Asia Online

Column: Humanity or Humor?
"Shall we not be allowed even to bury the dead?" moaned a man to reporters in front of a collapsed building in Dhaka. He had been waiting eight days to claim the body of his brother from the rubble of the Rangs building, which had crumbled and killed workers hired to demolish the illegal structure.

The dead worker was supposed to go home to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid, his brother said. "Now he cannot even go home as a corpse! What sins did we commit that we have to suffer like this?"

The building collapsed in the night on Dec. 8 upon the sleeping workers, who had been hired to tear down 16 floors of the 22-story building after the Supreme Court ruled that the building exceeded legal heights.

The Rangs building was constructed within a zone where building heights are restricted to 205 feet due to its proximity to Tejgaon Airport. In 1989, when General Hussain Mohammad Ershad's autocratic government was ruling the country, the Rangs' owners allegedly received approval to build a 10-story building by bribing officials of the Capital City Development Authority. The officer who initially rejected the plan because it did not comply with zoning restrictions was allegedly removed from the position. The man who replaced him gave permission for the construction to go ahead.

At first a six-story building was constructed, but it eventually grew into a 22-story high rise in the heart of the capital city, less than five minute's walk from the office of the prime minister. It went up in front of hundreds of officials of various governmental institutions, without any effective resistance.

When the military-backed government seized power in January, a group of interested bureaucrats took the chance to fight the construction. The cause provided the military officials an opportunity to exhibit their moral authority before the people. The Supreme Court, after a prolonged battle, declared in its Aug. 3 verdict that the floors from the 6th to the 22nd should be demolished in order to keep the zone safe for flying aircraft – even though the airport has been used by the armed forces for the past few years and is not controlled by civil aviation authorities.

As soon as the court declared the verdict the city authorities sent a group of workers to begin demolishing the building. A private company that began the work on Aug. 3 had reportedly been given a contract to demolish the tower within three months. Several hundred day laborers had begun hammering the building to break down the 16 floors. Needless to mention, the work was not only unscientific, but also careless; which ultimately caused the deaths of around 50 poor laborers.

This incident is related to the lawlessness and carelessness of the Bangladesh authorities. A 22-story building can be erected by owners who thumb their noses at the citizens because of their affinity with the rulers, ignoring the laws of the land. The concerned officials remain peaceful and happy in their jobs in various departments as the government also remains beyond any accountability to the people.

The Supreme Court ordered a demolition only after 22 floors were already built, decorated and occupied by many businesses. Then the building was beheaded so carelessly that it caused the deaths of the laborers. In a final disgrace, the authorities failed to retrieve the dead bodies of the ill-fated fellows for burial. The rescue teams declared that their work was done, even though the city air remained filled with the smell of decomposing bodies buried under pieces of concrete.

Nobody knows what is the use of so many government departments that do not serve the interests of the people, do not prevent lawbreakers from causing disorder and destruction, and do not rescue the citizens from the heaps of problems created by the authorities themselves. The failure to recover the bodies of the workers so their families can give them proper funerals is evidence of how irresponsible, immoral, inefficient and disrespectful the Bangladeshi authorities are! Will they ever get rid of these lawless and inhuman practices?

(Rater Zonaki is the pseudonym of a human rights defender of Bangladesh who has been working on human rights issues in the country for more than a decade and who was a journalist in Bangladesh in the 1990s.)

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