As is my habit every morning when I wake up, I quickly look at the online version of The Wall Street Journal. I stumble around at that time as it was about 5 am and my dogs are nipping at my heels to take them for a walk. So, I basically sleepwalk through my routine every morning until I actually get out of the house rain or shine for an hour long walk. Not on Wednesday of last week. One look at the red banner of breaking news and I was wide awake. The news shouted out that 86 people, mostly women garment workers, were feared dead after a building collapsed near Dhaka. I spent the whole day mired in sadness, anger and sense of hopelessness about the land of my father.
As the details emerged over the next few days it became evident that, greed, wholesale corruption and total lack of future orientation caused the murder of some 400 people and maybe lot more to come. I say this is murder because this did not have to happen and to an extent it was the deliberate act of putting profits before human lives. If some terrorists blew up the building and caused these many deaths the world would have been much more outraged and there would have been non-stop coverage in the West. But, this has not caused the same angst as three people dying at Boston has caused. In my view this act of murder is no less an act of terrorism by some blinded people blowing up the Boston Marathon. This is an act of Profit Terrorism and it is nurtured by the value system that most of human society these days live with. What is Profit Terrorism? Well this is something I came up with after watching one industrial disaster after another in Bangladesh, China, US and many other countries. Profit Terrorists are people who are deliberately willing to murder other humans for the sake of making an extra dollar or extra ten million dollars.
Unfortunately this is not limited to Bangladesh but the breakneck speed of growth of the garment industry has given the Profit Terrorists more opportunities to commit murder and mayhem in Bangladesh.
I am sure right now there are strong demands for punishing the owners of the buildings and factories involved with a public show of anger and action. Maybe someone would like to publicly put him on a “Shool” or behead him like they do in Saudi Arabia. But, by arresting the hapless Sohel Rana and the factory owners do we accomplish anything other than the satisfaction that we have punished one or five Profit Terrorists? I think Profit Terrorism is a systematic and pervasive vice that lives on the wink and a nod from the society and by extension of the governing elite. We can punish this one Profit Terrorist but we will have done nothing to address the core issues and conditions that make the profit terrorists thrive in our society.
Before we hang Mr. Rana, let us ask ourselves these questions:
1. Who allowed him to build those buildings without abiding by the rather nominal building codes of the country?
2. What gave him the courage to say, “The buildings will last 100 years” in the face of stark evidence that the buildings were unsafe?
3. What drove the factory owners and managers to force the workers to get back to work? Here the factory owners and managers were putting profit before the life of people. Why did they think they can get away with that?
4. What about the enforcement of the existing codes for safety? Who does that? Where were they?
5. Why did it take such a long time for the authorities to respond after the collapse?
The country and Madame Prime Minister have choices to make. The government can decide to punish a few Profit Terrorists (Rana and the gang) but leave the underlying causes untouched for yet another disaster in the near future. There has been fire after fire in Bangladesh garment factories but after the initial breathless activities nothing fundamental ever changes and the fire keep on burning. Similarly, if the country and the international buyers leave this government to paper over this disaster by punishing one moronic building owner then is another disaster that far away?
So, the country and the opinion makers must demand that the government addresses the underlying causes and not simply attack the symptom. But, how would the government take any action when the home minister is running around and blaming the collapse of the building on opposition or the strikers, etc. OK, let’s agree that this guy made this most ludicrous comment, but he is the home minister for Pete’s sake!
Why do I say the government should take the lead? Typically I am opposed to any government intervention in any business activity mainly because as organizing powers governments tend to be inefficient, period. This is especially true for countries where the public is kept in the dark. But, there is one thing the governments do well if they want to, enforcement of laws. That requires that there is a set of laws that everyone is equally subject to and the enforcement action is not dished out based on one’s station in life in terms of money and power. Profit Terrorists find ways to confuse and distract enforcement. As the mayhem in Bangladesh was going on, a fertilizer factory blew up in West Texas, killing some 17 people and injuring hundreds. This happened because the industry lobby managed the regulatory oversight to be transferred from the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to the Homeland Security, a muscle bound bureaucracy which has no subject matter expertise.
Madame Prime Minister this is your opportunity to build a lasting framework for the garment industry so that Bangladesh can thrive and does not lose its toehold in the world. If the infrastructure issues are resolved I see nothing but progress for Bangladesh. Here are some ideas to get your government going in the right direction:
a. Levy a one-time surcharge on ALL garment factories so that you can provide lifetime living stipend to the survivors of the Savar disaster. Make sure all monies are publicly disclosed and the disbursements are direct and without middlemen.
b. Publish names and addresses of ALL buildings that are illegally built or do not have the required code approval. Start with the BGMEA building next to Sonargaon Hotel. This building is built illegally and on public property. This is your opportunity to make a fresh start. Demolish BGMEA building and start over.
c. Demolish or confiscate every building that has been built illegally and/or does not meet code. Many of these buildings probably do not meet code and there should be no hesitation in demolishing those buildings and illegally built buildings should become public property and rented out to businesses that can contribute to the continued growth of the country.
d. Create a public agency with enforcement powers that will disclose every building’s permitting process, periodic safety reviews and any incidents on a website. This is a low cost way to shine some light into the darkness of permitting and building process.
e. Start an outreach programme soon to the buyers of the Bangladesh with your concrete plans to reduce the risks of such disasters and other industrial accidents.
Madame, Prime Minister, I am afraid unless you take the action yourself, the marketplace will take actions that will limit Bangladesh’s ability to compete on a global basis. Let us hope your action and the country’s outrage will be channelled to eliminate the Profit Terrorists!