550 and counting, needlessly killed. They should not rest in peace, but should haunt our collective middle and upper class conscience for every second that we are prepared to enjoy our relative prosperity, complicit in its human cost. Helping the victims of an avoidable tragedy after the fact is very admirable but it does nothing to stop the next avoidable tragedy. This was not a natural disaster. This was not an act of God. We let this happen. We did this to ourselves. And I do not see enough being demanded to stop it from happening again.
In every country there are unscrupulous people who would trade human life for personal gain. It is the role of a nation’s institutions to protect the vulnerable among its citizens from those who seek to profit by harming them.
Those of us who can afford it have adapted to our feeble public institutions by creating private ones. When the public utilities fail to provide us with electricity, we buy IPSs and generators. When the police fail to protect our homes, we employ private security guards. And when we no longer trust that Rajuk is ensuring the safety of the capital’s buildings, we choose to live in apartments built by brands like Asset or Navana and work for companies like Brac Bank, whose employees’ lives were thankfully spared.
Private institutions per se are no bad thing: they can demonstrate to the public sector that better service is possible and through competitive pressure they can help raise standards everywhere. But when the private institutions tend to further undermine the already frail public ones, they can harm those who cannot afford to buy into them — usually those very people who are most in need of society’s protection. My private security guard allows me to sleep more soundly at night, making me less likely to demand that the police do their job. In this way, private institutions have stopped those most able to effectively demand change — the relatively well off — from feeling the need to do so. As a result, the death toll at Rana Plaza creeps ever upwards, while we sleep soundly.
In case that does not quite qualify as blood on our hands, there is another, more sinister channel through which the private motives of the relatively privileged have increased the alienation of the poor. Whenever the frail arm of the law comes between us and something we want, more and more of us find ourselves willing to grease its palm. But every time someone bribes a government official they are undermining one of the institutions that are supposed to serve and protect society’s vulnerable from those that would do them harm. Bribing a traffic policeman to get out of paying a ticket weakens the police, an institution that is charged with protecting us from the weapons of violent criminals. Paying someone at the border to avoid the taxes due on a piece of electronic kit weakens the very customs office that is supposed to keep synthetic drugs out of our country and away from our children. And bribing the building inspector for those ten extra square feet on your balcony weakens the institutions that are charged with preventing those 550 deaths.
Finally, we — the middle and upper classes — are the friends and family of those who have forsaken their duties of public office for private gain. We know who among us are living beyond the means afforded by their government salaries. But we let the corrupt flaunt their gains in public because we have created a society where it is impolite to call them on it. Those who buy and sell human life for profit can do so shamelessly because we still set them places at our dinner tables and call it civility. This civility reduces the cost of being corrupt.
The Rana Plaza tragedy happened because a collection of government officials, charged with the responsibility of preventing it from happening, failed to do their jobs, presumably because they were paid not to. They are killers now. So are the men who paid them. But what does that make all of us, who bought privatised peace of mind, without a second thought to those we were leaving unprotected? Who, bribe by bribe, taka by taka, eroded the institutions that might have protected them? Who contributed to a culture that reduced the cost of being corrupt, by allowing those who we knew to be corrupt a place at our dinner tables, our parties and our festivals?
We have Sohel Rana in custody. But that is not enough. We want the name of the government engineer who approved the plans for the building. We want the name of the government official who inspected the site to check that the building was in line with the plans. And we want these names before the signed documents go missing from government offices. We want the names of the construction company, the contractor, the site engineer, the structural engineer and the architect of this building. And we want all this to be public information, now. And if our police, our courts, our politicians or our prisons allow any of these people to slip through the cracks of our system, we want their friends and relatives and every person they pass on the street to not abstain from calling them murderers to their faces in the name of civility.
But much more than any of this, we want us to start demanding the strong institutions that are absolutely essential if we are to avoid another tragedy like this. We want us to stop undermining these critical institutions for petty personal gains. We want us to raise the cost of being corrupt by ostracising those we know to be corrupt. Through action or inaction, we are collectively responsible for the status quo. We can never wash this off our hands. We really just want us to not fail our countrymen quite so utterly ever again.
The writer is a PhD student at the University of Sussex.