The case to create an independent health and safety authority in Bangladesh
The tragic event of Chawkbazar on the eve of February 21 marked one of our saddest historical days in the national calendar. We lost more innocent lives this day than in 1952, albeit for totally different reasons.
The loss of lives in 1952 was for a noble reason, but the catastrophic event at Chawkbazar is particularly tragic because it could have been avoided if appropriate measures were taken. We remember a similar tragic event in 2010 where 123 people died in Nimtoli, not too far from Chawkbazar. We have thus lost more than 200 people in similar catastrophic incidents, both of which we could have avoided.
Everyone thought that the 2010 incident was the ultimate wake-up call for the government and its relevant authorities to take every precautionary measuresfor the prevention of such cataclysmic accidents again. Sadly, it is very clear now that very little or nothing has been done for prevention. Historically, we seem to be in denial where we do not take safety as a serious issue.
The general trend is to take measures or create provisions for preventive measures after major incidents causing huge human tragedy. The Rana Plaza disaster is a sad example of initiating a variety of measures after losing more than 1,100 lives and more than 2,500 being seriously injured. The human cost of our alertness and our lack of preparation to handle disasters in a urban settings has been significantly high.
After Nimtoli, our promises to have stringent measures in place have simply not happened, or else we would not have lost so many lives in subsequent tragedies. The Chawkbazar accident has again brought forward the issue of a lack of planning in terms of urban disaster preparedness, and a call for the creation of a national body to look after the health and safety aspects of our lives at work, in public spaces, and at home.
In the Global Safety Index, Bangladesh ranks 133 out of 180 countries. Even in South Asia, we only rank above the Maldives, and all our neighbours seem to be doing better than us for ensuring public safety at various spheres of life.
It is clear that we can no longer rely on the local authorities -- who are neither capable nor willing to address these issues for multifarious political economic factors -- when it comes to ensuring our safety. Our fire and civil defense service are not capable of creating and ensuring safety measures against fire and other accidents. Similarly the department for explosives, with only three inspectors to ensure safety in Dhaka, is insufficient, to say the least.
It is time for us to look around and learn from the best practices across the globe and see what can be done to meet those benchmarks. Instead of keeping various authorities for carrying out the same functions, it would be wiser to create an independent authority with skilled manpower, logistics, and appropriate legislative authority to supervise and enforce health and safety measures to safeguard the public at large.
The creation of an independent health and safety body is not unheard of. There are countries that have similar authorities to ensure public health and safety. In the UK, there is a health and safety executive which closely works with local government bodies to ensure public safety at work and in public place for example. Such an authority should be able to take the right measures by bringing in all the relevant stakeholders for the prevention of any incident that can put public safety at jeopardy.
We may look at the models around the world and modify their approach to suit our country’s context in such a way that the new health and safety inspectorate in Bangladesh can perform independently and prevent any further cataclysmic accidents like Nimtoli, Rana Plaza, and Chawkbazar.
Shahariar Sadat is the Academic Coordinator of Centre for Peace and Justice, BRAC University.