• Friday, December 19, 2014

Freedom in the air

Accidents and dispensability of lives

Ziauddin Choudhury

ACCIDENTS happen, whether they are preventable is another matter. But we do lose human lives from these accidents, preventable or not. In some countries, however, the frequency of big accidents, whether on road, rail or water, is such that the news of small incidents no longer shocks people.  More than 4,000 people die on Bangladesh's roads every year. The country has one of the highest rates in the world, with more than 85 deaths for every 10,000 registered motor vehicles. That's around 50 times higher than the rate in most western countries. There have been no less than 390 launch accidents over the last 25 years costing some 3,700 lives, and nearly 500 people remain listed as missing (not including the latest Padma river disaster). Nothing is safe. Last year an eight-story building, the Rana Plaza, housing several garment factories, collapsed in Savar, killing about 1,200 people.

The big tragedy is not only the frequency or loss of human lives from such mega accidents, but also the imperviousness and nonchalance of our authorities and public leaders to these recurring events. We hear outcries of the affected people and families after every big accident that was reported by the media, and instant reactions of our public leaders and enforcement agencies vowing actions against the usual suspects, namely the vehicle operators or building owners. As a demonstration of the earnestness of the authorities we see images of some people being hauled away or a search for the culprits who get away. But when the outcries slow down and people's disaffection and emotions abate, things go back to normal. The launches operate under the old rule of who can load the highest number of passengers in their jerry built vessels; menacing buses speed against one another on hazardous roads, with people loaded on the roof; and the garment workers continue to sweat away in buildings that have no equipment for fighting fire hazards.

When disasters strike we witness blame games; operators blaming the owners, owners blaming the operators, while the regulators blame both owners and operators. Lost in this blame game is the role of the regulators and the agency they work for—the government. Time and time again it has been seen that the accidents, both on roads and water, are mostly caused by inept or ill-trained operators, unsafe vehicles and vessels, and ineffective supervision of road and water traffic. Similarly, the building accidents happen because there is ineffective and often absent enforcement of safety standards.

The irony is that these accidents happen despite presence of legislation and enforcement agencies in the country. The question that arises is why they still happen.

Accidents and the concomitant losses in human lives occur not because we as a nation are unfeeling to these, but because we live in a vicious cycle or Catch-22 situation of venality that envelope our daily life. The laws and law enforcement agencies are successful only if they can operate in a free and transparent manner. They cannot succeed if some of the people who are supposed to uphold the law also act as brokers or patrons of law breakers.

Greed, corruption and ignorance are some of the reasons behind such disasters. It is difficult to establish rule of law when there is entente between some law makers and the law breakers. Often, the law enforcers look the other way when the law breakers flaunt their association with powers that patronise them.  Otherwise, there is no reason why committees have to be formed to dig out reasons for each major accident when the persons responsible move about freely in front of the law enforcers. There is no reason why the top officials have to equivocate about actions that they are obliged to take, but are not taken, to prevent recurrence of such accidents.

Monitoring traffic, whether on road or water, enforcement of safety laws, and ensuring passenger safety through education and training are not rocket science.  In a country that has the least percentage of paved roads and least number of roads and water transport per thousand people, enforcement of transport safety should not be difficult.  

We do not need more laws to prevent these preventable accidents; what we need is the will to prevent them. This will has to be demonstrated by our government by first by taking action against the coalition between transport and other businesses and some politically powerful people, who sometimes happens to be one and the same.  Second, by replacing rhetoric of stern action against people responsible for failing to adhere to safety standards and safe movement of vehicles and vessels with actual and firm action that is transparent. And last, by empowering law enforcement agencies with real authority free from political backlash. These are not wishful thinking, but actually doable acts that will prevent future accidents and loss of human lives.

The writer is a US-based political analyst and commentator.

Published: 12:00 am Saturday, August 16, 2014

TAGS: accidents

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