Thursday, May 23, 2019 | ePaper

No big changes

Six years after Rana Plaza tragedy

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Mohammed Norul Alam Raju :
On April 24, 2013, Rana Plaza, an eight-storied commercial building, collapsed in Savar. On May 13, after 21 days of the incident, the search for the dead ended with the death toll of 1,136. Approximately 2,515 injured people were rescued from the building alive. It is considered to be the deadliest garment-factory accident in history.
According to BGMEA source, at the time of the collapse, five garment factories were in operation in the Rana Plaza building, total 2,760 workers were deployed in five factories of the building while the numbers are 3,900 as per reports by other sources. 24th April 2019 will be the sixth year of Rana Plaza disaster. Curious mind wants to know what steps Bangladesh took to avoid such disasters in order to improving the governance in garment factories, ensure rights and safety of workers and overall follow the rules and regulation during construction of a building.
Safety of workers hanged:
Revulsion over Rana Plaza forced brands and retailers to act. About 250 companies signed two initiatives, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, and the less constraining Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Both were designed to improve safety of 2,300 factories supplying Western brands. Both completed their terms last year. But in addressing fire safety, building safety, workers protection, and preparedness for massive collapse - has any practical discussion taken place? Progress is less obvious for workers in at least 2,000 factories that do not supply major western brands, and are inspected either by the Bangladesh government, or others.
The issue of minimum wage rate for the garment workers has come into the discussions. The minimum monthly wage for garment workers has increased at $68, though it is very poor compared to $280 in mainland China. Facing the threat of being cut off by Western buyers, thousands of factory owners have invested in fire doors, sprinkler systems, electrical upgrades and stronger foundations. About 71 workers died each year in fire and building collapses in the years before Rana Plaza tragedy. In the years since, it is about 17 people annually, according to a report from New York University's Stern Centre. Brands are being held accountable.
But major life-threatening concerns remain outstanding in too many factories and need to be updated. Less than 15% of these have fixed even half outstanding safety issues in the past five years (ILO, 2018). In terms of the actual progress made in these factories, "it's a black hole," says Laura Gutierrez, from the Worker Rights Consortium. Trade union activity, which surged in the three years after Rana Plaza, is slowing. Last year, the number of new unions registered fell to the lowest levels since before the disaster
Why the building collapsed?
After Rana Plaza collapse, a former Chief Engineer of the State-run Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (RAJUK) said the owner had not received proper consent for the building, and that an extra three stories were added illegally. The other reasons include conversion the building from commercial use to industrial use where heavy machinery are placed on upper storied, finally the use of substandard construction material which lead to an overload of the building structure aggravated by vibrations due to the generators. All these reasons show the physical vulnerability of the buildings in Bangladesh and manner of misuses.
Search and rescue operation, vulnerability of Dhaka and our capacity:
Rana Plaza collapse foretastes the preparedness of government and other relevant service providing agencies including factory owners for a tremor. A single building collapse killed 1,136 people and wounded more than 2,000 workers while governments "all out action" took around 21 days for completing the search and rescue operation.
Logically, curiosity grows; if a moderate tremor hits the country and collapses thousands of buildings, then how long will the government take to finish their search and rescue operation with this minimum extent of preparation along with huge gaps in equipment stock.
Quakes in Bangladesh and capital's trouble:
Although Bangladesh has not experienced a major earthquake in over a Century, recently an escalation in seismic activity has been observed. A strong earthquake of 8.6 magnitude occurred in Assam on August 15 in 1950, killing 1,526 people. Another 8.1 magnitude quake hit Assam on June 12 in 1897, killing 1500 people. The casualties were less because of low density of population and fewer numbers of concrete structures at that time.
Dhaka is more vulnerable to earthquakes due to its geological location and both human and economic exposure. According to CDMP study, some 78,323 buildings will be destroyed completely if a 6 magnitude earthquake shakes Dhaka. In case of a 7.5 magnitude earthquake, some 72,316 buildings in the capital will be damaged totally and 53,166 others partially while the numbers will go up to 238,164 across the country in case of an 8.5 magnitude tremor.
There would be an economic loss of about Tk. 8,580 crore resulting from only structural damage in case of a 7.5 magnitude earthquake. The loss would be Tk. 8,346 in case of 6-magnitude earthquake if the epicentre is Dhaka City. Some 30 million tonnes of debris, equal to 2,880,000 truckloads (25 tonnes per truck), will be generated if a 6-magnitude earthquake jolts the city from beneath it. According to the study, at least 10 major hospitals, 90 schools in the capital will be destroyed completely and another 241 Hospitals and Clinics, 30 Police Stations and Four Fire Stations partially in case of a 7.5-magnitude quake.
Poor capacity to deal with quake:
Considering the vulnerability, the government's preparedness is far too inadequate to address its aftermath. Many risk factors like unplanned urbanisation remains. People have no proper knowledge about tremor and citizens have no idea what they have to do during one.
Back in 2012, government has decided to build 62,000 Community Volunteers to carry out rescue operations immediately after disaster, but in seven years since announcing, they could merely train a fraction - 30,000 - of the intended amount. Inefficiency and lack of coordination among the different government bodies and among GO-NGO is also considered as a big challenge. Debris management will become a serious challenge if tremor hits. A single building collapse (Rana Plaza) generated about 7,000 tonnes of debris and nearly 21 days were needed to complete the rescue operation. The poor capacity tested in Nimtoli, Chawkbazar and Banani fire incidents in recent past. A contingency plan is yet to be tested while Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for the organisations, departments and the institutions yet to be developed.
More steps needed to face disasters:
So the question remains - how prepared is the government to face possible worst-case scenarios following a disaster? Involving different Ministries and the Non-Government Organisations, a coordination mechanism should be developed so that special guidelines could be prepared and disseminated. Mass awareness programs must span all strata of society including city dwellers, Government officials, Municipality officials, Politicians, Engineers, Architects, Designers, Builders and Medical people.
The government must enforce the Building Construction Act and the Building Construction Regulation in setting up new structures and stress the need for formulating a policy and nominate an authority to implement the Building Construction Regulation. Through the implementation of Bangladesh National Building Code (BNBC), casualties and the overall damage can be minimised. Initiatives should be taken to demolish old and highly risky buildings as a first step towards minimising casualties in such natural disasters, followed by their retrofitting to make the vulnerable buildings earthquake-tolerant. Implementation of safety plan for garment factories needs to continue.
Increase the capacity of emergency response agencies in skills and equipment as well as their structure, responsibilities and coordination mechanism along with proper-regular financial allocation.
Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) measures should be institutionalised in every government institution at every level, especially in the urban context.
Finally, we never expect these sorts of accident or any major earthquake anywhere but preparedness, awareness and governance could contribute, reducing the loss of lives and property.

(Mohammed Norul  Alam Raju; Director - Program, Policy and Advocacy, World Vision Bangladesh; Email: Mohammed_Norul_Alam@wvi.org)

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