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Fire in the hole

  • Published at 01:00 am March 30th, 2019
Just one more tragedy
Just one more tragedy / MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

Why safety doesn’t seem to be a priority for Bangladesh

Safety has never been a priority for Bangladesh.

What we excel at, instead, is short term gain by cutting corners, never bothering to have sight of the big picture. Perhaps this has something to do with our past, when we, as a country, were much poorer than we are now, and the idea of precautions seemed like a Western conceit -- a luxury.

Because how can you begin to think long term when the hunger in your belly is so immediate? How can you invest in a safer environment for future generations when you can barely support your family today? How can you think about fire safety when you are living hand-to-mouth?

Though still not exactly a rich country by global standards, we are also not as poor as we used to be. 

Our exporting sector has made us a force to be reckoned with in the world market, food productivity and technology have increased in leaps and bounds making the fear of famine a thing of the past, and young professionals in white collar jobs are pulling in salaries that afford them a lifestyle their parents, let alone grandparents, would never dream of.

Our city is filled with high-rises, and our streets are strewn with expensive cars (mostly reconditioned, but still); the capital city pulsates with aspiration, with the desire to be taken seriously, to one day become a global city that foreigners want to come to, a place to invest.

The government never lets us forget, for one second, that Bangladesh is marching steadily towards its goals; that the last few years have seen so much development that it is even OK to cut the government some slack and not constantly demand a Western-style democracy. Malaysia and Singapore developed as countries marvelously without democratic governments, so why not us?

If the standard of living can go up -- and the government assures us that it is -- what could possibly be the problem? We should be reaping the rewards of our affluence, stay content with our lives, and not question the status quo.

Oh, wouldn’t that be nice.

Sadly, Singapore (or Malaysia) we are not. Singapore is one of the safest countries in the world, while Bangladesh has hit rock bottom and started digging. 

We have high-rises, but they are death traps.

We have roads full of expensive (mostly reconditioned, but still) cars, but they are death traps.

In other words, our increased affluence -- our so-called march towards development -- has done nothing, zero, to increase the safety and security of the lives of human beings who call this country home.

It doesn’t matter how much the GDP goes up, because our mindset has remained poor; we still think, act, and live like a poor country, an uneducated country, one that has no awareness of fire safety, road safety, one that wantonly destroys the environment, poisons the air, one that still treats human life as cheap.

Because until some kind of disaster actually breaks out, safety is an abstract concept, and abstraction is something that the average Bangladeshi politician and policy-maker, stuck in survival mode from its poverty-stricken days, driven by greed and corruption, still fails to grasp.

On Thursday, 25 people died in a fire at FR Tower in Banani. It wasn’t the first tragedy of its kind, and it won’t be the last. In the last 10 years, there have been 16,000 major fire incidents in the country, in which nearly 1,600 people have perished. 

Will Banani or Chawkbazar serve as a wake-up call, jolting us out of complacency and forcing the government to make safety a priority? I am not so optimistic, because in order for the authorities to truly change the safety scenario in the country, our mindsets, our attitudes, ie our core values need to develop along with our economy. But that seems to be a long way away. 

We are mentally still too impoverished to do the needful. 

Abak Hussain is Editor, Editorial and Op-Ed, Dhaka Tribune.