Friday, May 24, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Death by fire, hyperactive Rajuk, sealed eateries

The long arms of the corrupt yet remain grasping

Update : 14 Mar 2024, 04:46 PM

Every tragedy -- be it a launch capsize, train accident, plane crash or fire -- rouses a good number of governmental bodies to energetic action. Inquiry committees, sometimes more than one, are quickly formed and a time frame is set for them to deliver their findings. There are too the compensations which are announced for the families of those who have died in these tragic occurrences and of those who have survived. 

And these instances of sadness, of people dying, of property destroyed, of families suddenly pushed into a state of ruin are for days after the tragedy has occurred focused on by the media. There is the ubiquity of television chat shows reflecting on why and how such calamities occur. 

Observe the manner in which 46 people have perished in the fire which engulfed a commercial building on Bailey Road some time ago. The Rajdhani Unnayan Katripakkha (Rajuk) was quick to inform citizens that the building gutted in the fire was supposed to house commercial or business offices, not the plenitude of restaurants which happened to be there. 

The key question now relates to where Rajuk was when all these eateries were being set up in that building. Rajuk permitted the structure to go up. And once it went up, it surely knew to what ulterior purpose the spaces inside the building was being put to. It should have been for Rajuk to step in and call a halt to the making of all those eating houses there. Rajuk stayed quiet, looked the other way.

Rajuk, along with some other organisations, is now busy trying to convince citizens that it means business. Restaurants and eateries along the city’s Satmasjid Road as well as Tajmahal Road in Mohammadpur and Ring Road in Shyamoli have come under Rajuk assault. A good number of these places have been shut down on the directives of Rajuk officials and the police. The reasons are certainly credible. These restaurants and eateries have not had safety measures in place. 

Emergency exits for customers have been found impeded by gas cylinders and other items on the staircases. Cooking has been discovered being done in unsafe manner, which in effect means putting diners at grave risk at any time. It is simply unpardonable for people who own such businesses to have their visitors threatened with loss of life in such callous manner.

The police and Rajuk have been taking action. But it is flawed action when simple, humble employees rather than owners are placed under arrest and hauled away to police stations or prison. The cook in the kitchen is not responsible for a guarantee of customer safety in the restaurant. The young man who serves diners at the table is doing a job which has nothing to do with ensuring safety from fire. 

Those who own these restaurants are those who need to be nabbed and grilled about their inability to abide by the rules. Besides, it is the owners who need to answer for setting up eating places in buildings that had been earmarked for office space. But, yes, there is the other side of the story as well. Some owners of eateries clamped shut have complained that despite having authorisation from Rajuk to operate their businesses, their restaurants have been ordered to close.

That raises the intriguing question of how, if all these buildings came up to furnish accommodation for offices, the owners of eateries wangled permission from Rajuk to operate their businesses in them. It now becomes extremely important for the authorities to focus attention on those officials at Rajuk on whose authorization such eateries were permitted to come up. 

In effect, while taking owners to task over their failure to ensure that their businesses are safe for customers, it also is of critical importance that the Rajuk officials who assisted these owners in engaging in improper business be located, identified, grilled and punished under the laws of the land. Such officials have been complicit in the crime. And criminal investigations are action which ought to pull everyone who has been involved in questionable activities, directly or otherwise, into the net.

Since the outbreak of the Bailey Road fire, media reports have thrown light on the wealth which a number of low-grade employees have accumulated through their association with Rajuk. Many of them own multi-storeyed flats, businesses and expensive vehicles. Which leads us to the question of whether all Rajuk officials should not be investigated to ascertain the extent of wealth they have come by through serving at the organisation. 

It becomes important for the government, indeed for such bodies as the Anti-Corruption Commission, to undertake the task of launching inquiries into the careers of all Rajuk officials since the emergence of Bangladesh in late 1971. Many are the instances of senior Rajuk officials, now dead or superannuated, owning a multiplicity of homes or flats in the nation’s capital and elsewhere, all gains accruing from their services at Rajuk. Such illegally acquired property owners need to be exposed.

How much do government officials, even at the highest level of the bureaucracy, earn? What is the salary structure at Rajuk for its employees, all the way from the lowest-level staffer to the highest official? How does it happen that government officials own homes and other property which go beyond permissible limits? Who will explain how the powerful in Bangladesh, from political figures to government officials, have become symbols of affluence at home and abroad even as citizens struggle to put food on the table for their families? 

Yes, we speak of corruption. And corruption is never brought to an end by appealing to the corrupt to change their behaviour, their patterns of life. It is brought about when incorruptible people in the administration, people who care about public welfare, move with speed and determination against dishonest men and women whose veneer of respectability requires to be swiftly unmasked before the country. 

Let the truth not be papered over. Despite everything, we in Bangladesh are yet a society of poor men and women who have little means of ensuring economic security for our families. Our salaries are low. Our wages are a pittance. Dishonest traders fleece us day in day out with the inflated prices of food items at the market. We know of the syndicates behind the rising prices but are powerless to neutralise them.

Thousands of our young people, all educated and adequately qualified to serve the nation, go around looking for jobs that will supplement the family income. The more fortunate or the affluent among these young go off to foreign land, with most of them never intending to come back to Bangladesh. 

It is not a pretty picture. And it gets ugly when society gets to be depleted of the very forces that can bring about a change. And change in societies like ours can only be brought about through firmness of governmental action. When basic food -- meat, fish, vegetables -- go out of the reach of citizens, it is for government to reassure people that their welfare will be guaranteed, that they will eat well and live well.

It is for government to convince the nation, these millions of poor, struggling people, these honest citizens who are not tempted by corruption but are hostage to corruption, that those siphoning off national resources abroad will pay for their criminality. It is for government to inform citizens that a welfare state is on the way, that the future will be constructed on the demolished dishonest gains of the corrupt, that the state will rise to being a social democracy.

All those 46 people whose lives at Bailey Road were put to a rude end by the fire were, in the end, victims of corruption. The long arms of the corrupt yet remain grasping.

A happy society is not built with political figures owning homes and businesses overseas. It is not constructed when bureaucrats, isolated from the masses, move around in expensive government-owned vehicles here at home.

A happy society is one where the middle class does not have sleepless nights over shrinking finances. It is one which does not need to worry about coughing up the monthly school fees of its children. 

A happy society shines in the broad smile of a peasant going home from the village market with a hilsha fish and vegetables he has been able to purchase at prices within his reach. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Consultant Editor, Dhaka Tribune.

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