One of Bangladesh’s most popular novelists, the late Humayun Ahmed, once compared Bangladeshis to a goldfish for forgetting things too easily.
Disagreeing with the late author, and keeping faith in my fellow countrymen, I believe that they have not forgotten what happened in Bahaddarhat, Chittagong five years ago -- three girders from the infamous Bahaddarhat flyover claimed at least 13 lives in November 2012.
The fatal incident was followed by a series of similar casualties in Sirajganj, Patuakhali, Pirojpur, Boalkhali, and, about a few days ago, in Dhaka’s Malibagh. The number of deaths caused by such accidents has crossed the two dozen mark already.
To understand these deaths, one does not need to be an expert analyst or a researcher. Among the common reasons, lack of safety measures, awareness, and experience are the most obvious ones.
But it needs to be asked: For a country that is staring “middle income” status in the eyes, and can even afford to build one of the most expensive bridges in the world, how hard is it to ensure a little bit of safety for the citizens while constructing such mega projects?
Can we chalk it up to political interventions? It seems the most obvious candidate, if you ask me.
After the incident at Bahaddarhat, an influential ruling party leader from Chittagong publicly held the treasurer of Chittagong Awami League responsible for the loss of life.
It was alleged that, because of his abuse of power, the treasurer handed over the construction work to people of his own choice, who obviously messed it up quite badly. Aventually causing the girders to fall.
After the catastrophe, the military was called to complete the unfinished flyover.
Surprisingly, after a chain of interesting events, the treasurer was dropped from the charge sheet placed by the police over the incident and his term was extended for two more years in 2015.
Leaders, as the age-old adage goes, are said to lead by example, not by orders. The example that was set by this incident was clear as a bell: “If you’re on my team, I’ve got you covered -- don’t worry if a few people die because of your negligence.”
To be fair, it’s an attitude that plagues our “national mentality,” for want of a better term.
Last year, in June, a bridge less than a month old collapsed and caused the death of one in Pirojpur, and now, similarly, in the capital, the girder of a flyover that is yet to even be completed took the life of a woodcarver.
To understand these deaths, one does not need to be an expert analyst or a researcher. Among the common reasons, lack of safety measures, awareness, and experience are the most obvious ones
Political interference, criminal negligence, lack of willingness to monitor, high cost per unit, and the use of low-quality material were pretty much evident as the causes of such accidents, in the past or otherwise, not to mention instances of infighting between ruling party men over construction work, stupid/cheap decisions such as using bamboo instead of steel rods for the scaffolding, and awarding development projects to party loyalists.
Disconcertingly, according to a popular Bengali language daily, the company that is supervising the construction work of the Malibagh flyover is allegedly owned by a state minister.
Awarding these contracts to partisan developers usually result in three types of problems, which have become an open secret to some extent:
First, they usually lack experience to build such large-scale structures and care little about public safety.
Second, after winning the contract, they secretly transfer that to some other construction firm making sure that are able to pocket some of the funds. These firms lose a portion of the money to those leaders and therefore try to make the project as cost effective as possible, which usually translates to the use of low-quality equipment and material.
And calling them out on it is a fool’s errand -- voices raised against such misconduct are usually silenced by calling them “anti-development” or “regressive,” the expected rhetoric trotted out by government high-ups these days.
It’s easy to brush off these deaths as simply being “accidents.” In that case, maybe we should redefine accidental deaths to mean deaths caused by negligence and unaccountability. It would make these deaths that much easier to swallow, that’s for sure.
AKM Wahiduzzaman is a political blogger.