Rajuk's 'absolute power corrupts absolutely'

Rajuk's 'absolute power corrupts absolutely'
“It was the unbridled greed of the building owners, developer and Rajuk officials that led to the devastating March 28 fire in FR Tower,” Public Works Minister SM Rezaul Karim said on March 30. PHOTO: PRABIR DAS

British historian Lord Acton's 130-year-old observation that a person's sense of morality diminishes as his/her power increases is true to this day. But, only for fools, for certainly nothing is permanent and the long hand of the law is bound to catch up—when the law can free itself from the entanglement of pressure groups and self-serving corruption. What Acton could not foresee, however, was the validity of his statement when a group of persons work together for mutual benefit.

In the era of the foot-pound-second (FPS) system and manual drawing, in the early 1990s, my client's submission for planning permission of his six-storeyed residential building was rejected by Rajuk. Mighty impressive stuff because there was an anomaly of perhaps a couple of inches, meaning two, in the summation of the lengths along one wall of my architectural design. That the technologically-qualified officer possessed a hawk's eye and dexterity with figures got me wondering, and my client wandering for months.

There are other aspects of integrity of the capital city's development authority that one cannot help but appreciate. Rajuk strictly practises the science of apparently not entertaining visitors. Once upon a time, my request for soliciting an unscheduled audience with an all-powerful "authorised officer" was met with surprising harshness by the man at his door. I did, however, manage to see my Buet junior by practising the art of gate-crashing—stubbornness spiced with the charm of persuasion.

At Rajuk, cards have to be shuffled artfully and dealt with sleight of the hand to make an officer (a government employee we forget) pick up the pen and sign an application for planning permission.

"Are you sure?" the teacher asked flabbergasted, "Did he not sign even after seeing it was an application for my building?"

"Sir, I told him, and he double-checked that it was your building. He was greatly animated, moving papers from one side of his desk to the other, slapping on some other drawings, opening this drawer and that, and then pushing back the papers to the other side. He only calmed down when I slipped money under his papers."

"But, but..." the teacher's voice was breaking, "He is my classroom student. I taught him ethics..." the words trailed off to a whisper.

Rajuk's acquired power over the last two decades is much derived from its chosen convenience of isolation, somewhat like the Myanmar military, the North Korean regime and similar autocracies. It is all hush-hush until one is able to untwine the maze by moving from room to room to gather signature after signature, and finally pash-pash. There are, however, expensive ways of doing business, especially if a file grows legs and walks away.

A government project for capacity-building of Rajuk, the city corporations, fire service, electricity distributors, and Wasa involved local and international experts. The team contacted Rajuk's chairman to seek his cooperation and relevant information to make the organisation more efficient, effective, vibrant and people-oriented—contributions that would be viewed as critical by any CEO. At the inaugural meeting, where you had puffing shingara for snacks and steaming tea, in attendance of his board members, the chairman committed most cordially Rajuk's wholehearted support to the investigators. The meeting ended with customary warm handshakes all around. Over the following six weeks, the chairman Sir did not respond to over 50 phone calls made to his cellphone. The other organisations honoured the RTI Act 2009 and subsequent rules.

Rajuk as well as some other service agencies naively shield themselves behind the lame excuse of manpower shortage. During recess of a talk show several years ago, I suggested to the then Rajuk chairman, off-camera out of respect, that given its manpower limitations, his public organisation should enforce punitive measures on a few errant building owners, and other owners would become aware and alert.

Control is always by example. Police in any country are outnumbered by criminals. Food adulterers vastly exceed the number of magistrates. Rajuk has heeded my plea only after the recent FR Tower fire by inspecting handpicked buildings. Lo! There is a sense of awareness spreading all over the city.

Despite the much-vaunted shortage of manpower, Rajuk's inspectors are famous for sniffing a violation of even a few centimetres from several miles away. One may challenge (read test) Rajuk's hidden strength (and selective adeptness) by constructing not an entire building but a simple column or a brick-wall. For sure, the perpetrator shall be hounded, pounded and grounded. Not to fear, where there is money there is always motivation to resolve a crisis at the cost of a few lives years later.

Rajuk is also extremely proficient in identifying a building that has violated architectural, structural or fire-related legislation (any or all), but it always waits for a building to bend, collapse or catch fire. It takes on average about six hours to issue a statement that the building that has come to the limelight for the wrong reasons did not have the approval of Rajuk. Even at that point in time, there is no word on the adjacent or other buildings that are perhaps equally or more vulnerable.

During the forthcoming Ramzan, a month of religious training, we shall learn from some Rajuk officers and employees that its blessed days and nights are the holiest of the year. In addition to abstaining from food and drinks, one should refrain from all sorts of sinful acts when in a state of fasting. No water, no food, and definitely no ghoosh (bribe sounds much too foreign). Therefore, officers arrange to see applications for planning permission after iftar. When one has broken fast, alongside filling the tummy, filling the pocket with undeserved revenue seems pleasingly permissible.

Whereas its predecessor was a trust for Dhaka's "improvement", since its transformation to Rajuk in 1987, the public agency has been taking up "development" projects to justify the term unnayan in its title. In the words of Rajuk, it has "taken an initiative to make Dhaka liveable (Hic!) through solving housing, transportation problems and creation of large-scale water-based public spaces." On the contrary, our housing is an escalating mess with, for instance, slum dwellers (well over a million in Dhaka) sans basic civic amenities. On a good day for traffic jam, it may be faster to walk the 9km from Motijheel to Gulshan because driving could eat up about five hours. Water bodies are everywhere but visible only after a cloudburst because development has meant filling up low-lying water retentive landforms in incessant violation of the Environment Conservation Act 1995 and the (reservoir) Joladhar Ain 2000.

"It was the unbridled greed of the building owners, developer and Rajuk officials that led to the devastating March 28 fire in FR Tower where at least 26 people died," Public Works Minister SM Rezaul Karim said on March 30, promising that building code violators, including Rajuk officials, would have to face the music.

Rajuk did not opt to utilise its derived and bestowed power for society's benefit, but has sunken deep in the quagmire of depravity, primarily due to greed and impunity in carrying out its contradictory functions as the city's controller and developer. We see hope in minister Rezaul's resolve.

Dr Nizamuddin Ahmed is a practising architect, a Commonwealth Scholar and a Fellow, a Baden-Powell Fellow Scout Leader, and a Major Donor Rotarian.