The news that at least 26 people died and many others were injured after fire broke out at the FR Tower in Dhaka's Banani was another tragic reminder of the everyday dangers faced by citizens of this country. One of the most depressing aspects of this incident was that it actually didn't come as a huge surprise to many of us. Such incidents are shockingly becoming part of everyday life in the capital. Clearly, it should not be this way.
In fact, the incident happened just a little over a month after a fire tore through Old Dhaka's Chawkbazar area in February, leaving at least 70 people dead. The Chawkbazar fire spread fast due to chemicals stored in a warehouse and was the second deadliest chemical-fuelled fire in the country following the 2010 Nimtoli incident.
Sadly, fires in Dhaka's skyscrapers have become all-too-familiar. Many of these fires were simply an accident waiting to happen. The buildings are cramped; the alleyways are narrow; buildings lack fire safety kits and equipment and have inadequate fire exits.
In the case of the fire at the FR Tower, it has now been confirmed that many people could not exit the building because its emergency exit points were closed. The fire service also told reporters that no demonstration on how to use emergency exit points of the building had ever been held.
For those who lost their loved ones in these tragedies, it must be extremely difficult to accept that those lives could potentially have been saved had adequate training in fire safety been in place. Those who died have paid the highest possible price due to the neglect of this very simple issue.
So, what is the answer? One thing we can all surely agree on is that the current state of affairs cannot continue. Many buildings in Dhaka are ticking timebombs and it is a matter of “when”, not “if”, another such incident occurs.
As well as being devastating for the people and their families involved, these incidents also reflect very badly on Bangladesh as a “place to do business.” They tarnish the reputation of the country, with news of fire-related incidents spreading very quickly around the world. Ever since Rana Plaza, Bangladesh has been under intense scrutiny.
In response to the latest tragedy, the High Court has directed the authorities to submit a report on fire safety measures pertaining to high-rise buildings in Dhaka city. I understand this report will be produced in around four months, and it surely cannot come soon enough.
However, I think there is another potential solution to these issues, and, in fact, it is staring us in the face. In Bangladesh's readymade garment industry, we have a sector which has, in recent years, undertaken some very important safety reforms. Thousands of factories have been inspected, thousands have implemented corrective action plans, and thousands have implemented plans to make them safe, by providing vital training and education to those that occupy these factories, among other means. This work, which is ongoing, is genuinely world-class and is being led by some of the finest, most knowledgeable minds in the global building safety industry.
The net result of this programme—undertaken by the Bangladesh Accord and Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, as well as internal Bangladeshi agencies—is that the RMG industry is now at the forefront of the very latest developments relating to building safety issues. The industry boasts a wealth of knowledge. So why not share this knowledge above and beyond the RMG sector?
The RMG sector accounts for 84 percent of export earnings in Bangladesh, and this sector was prioritised for safety overhaul, and rightfully so, particularly after the Rana Plaza tragedy. But there are many other sectors which also require safety training and general improvements in terms of building safety. One example is dyes and chemicals. Many dyeing and chemicals operations are located in residential areas. There are obvious safety issues associated with the storage of dyes and chemicals. Are regulations being adhered to here? Are people working in this area receiving adequate safety training? Are buildings storing these products fit to do so?
Other major sectors include leather, tea, IT, jute and pharmaceuticals, to name a few. Are these industries safe? At first glance, one might say that they have much to learn—and the RMG sector could provide some lessons.
So how will this learning take place? It needs knowledge-sharing, which in turn means seminars, workshops and other means where vital safety information can be disseminated. This might mean, for instance, usage of the experience and expertise of compliance professionals of the RMG sector by the Dhaka City Corporation authorities.
And who will lead and pay for this safety overhaul initiative? To guarantee funding, it would need to be led and coordinated by the government. In fact, I believe the government should impose the same building auditing and monitoring rules in other buildings, including residential, as they do in the RMG sector. This will mean other industries and building owners investing in building safety and associated training, and if this investment saves lives—which it surely will—it would not be money wasted.
This idea of knowledge-sharing might sound ambitious. But consider this: if somebody had said after Rana Plaza that thousands of RMG factories would undergo the safety overhaul that they did—collectively spending millions in the process—nobody would have believed them. Where there is a will, there is always a way. If this can happen in the RMG sector, then other sectors can do it too.
Mostafiz Uddin is the Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited. He is also the Founder and CEO of Bangladesh Denim Expo and Bangladesh Apparel Exchange (BAE). He can be reached at email@example.com.