‘What we started seeking in Shahbag – we found in Savar’, quipped Farah Ahmed, a quiet, reflective university-goer. She was referring to the amazing show of youth spirit and activism during the building-collapse tragedy at Savar. It was her first time engaging in a community activity and having gone through the traumatic but fulfilling experience, she had felt a profound sense of kinship with her countrymen.
Farah belongs to a new, urban generation that has been often associated with consumerism, attention deficiency, social isolation, political apathy and pop-culture fads. This is the generation that gave rise to slacktivism (slacker + activism) – feel-good actions for a lofty cause without achieving anything real. Signing online petitions, joining virtual groups, copying and pasting of statuses and altering one’s avatar on social networks are just some examples. Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker magazine famously argued, “(slacktivism) is simply a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information – over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”
It should, then, come as no surprise if Bangladesh’s new-generation activists were only ‘Like’-ing Microfinance pages to act against poverty. Or if their expression of patriotism was limited to sharing a Beautiful Bangladesh video. It begs the question whether these are just immature responses by a frivolous generation to profound social problems. The mere desire to ‘do something’ is juvenile idealism. It doesn’t fare as well as it means.
Long simmering in the blogosphere and in the cauldron that is Shahbag, youth-led activism exploded with the Savar tragedy. Instagram pictures of food, mushy quotes, match scores, trolls and memes were swiftly replaced by a flurry of news links and concerned statuses. Check-ins went from Gloria Jeans to Savar. Social-media and blogs were flooded with emotions ranging from heartbreak to disgust to plain anger. But instead of going rhetorical, it soon transformed into vigorous campaigning and fund-raising.
By April 25, news of blood-drives and fund-collection had spread like wildfire. Students and young professionals were queuing up at companies who had loaned out space and resources. At the same time, the actual scale of devastation had started to become clearer. One group rushed to Savar with their filming-lights. On-ground activists updated that there weren’t enough drilling machines and oxygen cans. That message was shared roughly 300 times and seen by an estimated 150,000 people within hours!
Digital platforms played a vital role in enabling real-time updates, information exchange, coordinated relief efforts and the formation of shared opinions. Spontaneous events and groups like ‘Help Savar Building Collapse Victims’, ‘Disaster Recovery (Bangladesh)’ and ‘Savar Saviours’ on Facebook, alongside existing company/fan/event pages, were at the heart of fund-raising / relief-sourcing efforts and constant updates.
‘Savar needs oxygen cylinders – available at Paltan BM Bhaban for Tk.600′, was widely shared on the night of 26 April, 2013. Another independent activist visited the Savar site the next day and updated that supplies were adequate at both Enam MCH and ground zero – and that cash donations for upcoming treatment and rehab should be held on to for the time being. Somewhereinblog.net, for example, made appeals for Diaspora/remittance funds and posted regular updates ‘sticky’ on their site. Generators, lights, torches, helmets, blades, gas-masks, medicines, wheel-chairs, crutches and myriad other items have been requested and sourced through activists’ social networks.
The improvised undertaking was made possible by a tech-savvy, innovative and incredibly compassionate generation. The initiative was comprised of intersecting social-circles with mutual friends between them. They didn’t rely on electronic / print media for information – but rather setup their own systems. Activists were constantly cross-posting, sharing updates and coordinating to avoid duplication of efforts. It’s hard to pinpoint where these updates were originating from. But fortunately, there seems to have been very little misinformation on this particular issue. It is this information-sharing that led to remarkably coordinated and organised efforts by frontline activists and the faceless multitudes in the virtual hinterland. The generation did not sleep all night, holding their breath for every single rescue – and broadcasting messages at the same time.
A remarkable feature of this bustle of activism surrounding Savar was its ability to shape and influence opinions. For example, some key themes that quickly emerged included suspension of anger, avoidance of political accusations and resisting sweeping condemnation of the entire sector. Controversy arose centering a graphic depicting a pair of jeans with blood-stains on its price tags; ‘Made in Bangladesh’ it said ominously. Virtual voices debated whether such an image wasn’t making sweeping allegations against the garments sector. Others contended that there will never be health and safety compliance if international buyers don’t wake up to the terrible working conditions in RMG. It was a mature, restrained debate for a generation that has long been viewed as inattentive, fickle and frankly, frivolous.
While some incredulously point out the limited reach of social media – it has been suggested that it connects nodes in influential segment of the population. What truly sets such activism apart (e.g. from slactivism) is the physical component. Each group / page had a corresponding field-unit. We saw them on the TV screen – standing atop the rubble, holding signs that said ‘torch’ or ‘oxygen’ or facilitating circulation with hand-fans. Tahseen Salman Chowdhury, activist, spoke of a young man who had had to perform an amputation – a man who had always avoided witnessing Qurbani (religious animal sacrifice). “He was maybe 20. And that’s their level of commitment.”
Farzana Rumpa, blogger, speculating on how the new generation managed this undertaking, talked about ‘circles of trust’ – groups of friends / colleagues linked together by mutual friends. This lent high-levels of credibility to real-time updates and the way funds were disbursed. She points out that these networks soon focused on those rescued instead of sensationalism around casualties.
Tarik Hasan, who works in advertising, says that ‘better information’ has a lot to do with the amazing activism seen recently. “It leads to better organization and division of responsibilities”, he adds. Armchair activists now have an avenue to channel their altruism. Frantic cries of ‘what can I do to help’ can now combine into social impetus, leading to activism.
The story is not complete without that of the Flexiload boys who stood at ground-zero with a placard – offering free phone-calls to rescuers. It’s not complete without an account of the elderly gentleman who was too embarrassed to deposit the 1 biscuit-pack and 1 box of saline he had brought; or the man who walked in with a watermelon on his head. In honour of the thousands of unnamed heroes – I have largely avoided naming activists and groups.
The Savar Tragedy exposed deep fault-lines in disaster management, relief-coordination, inter-agency cooperation and political-will in curbing corruption/nepotism. If one were to identify the silver-lining in all this – it would have to be the pesky, pretentious generation! The juvenile idealists! The clueless patriots, the gullible warriors. It was (and still is) they who are making the difference – they, who now truly embody the nation’s dreams.
Hereditary political lines have vanished. In its place has risen, a generation that has silenced all cynics and critics. A generation not bound by geography or incomes. A generation disillusioned – but not deterred. A generation that just by dint of its generosity – defeats all critics. A generation that doesn’t wait for direction or seek approval. These people are the Change.
These are the chosen ones.