How to get away with murder
In a country where the only thing that is cheap is human life, it is not surprising that the heart-wrenching stories of untimely, unnatural deaths also hog news headlines and the public imagination for a few days only. Every time such a tragic incident takes place, the same cycle repeats itself with increasing ruthlessness: front-page leads of victims or their families in tears, public outrage (mostly on social media), predictable calls for investigation, haphazard formation of probe committees, cases against "unnamed" people to appease the public and families, and – if we are lucky – vague promises of reform from the authorities.
Except nothing ever really changes. Until we, too, become tired of the tears, and the sad stories turn into statistics for us to quote – but not fully relate to. It sounds cruel, but if we are honest, how many of the 6,284 people killed in road accidents or the 1,053 people who died at workplaces in Bangladesh in 2021 alone do we remember, much less cry over?
An overwhelming majority of what we call "accidents" in Bangladesh are actually "structural murders" – meaning that the governance structures and institutions in place to protect and serve the public are so dysfunctional and callous that they make these deaths not only possible, but inevitable. Two incidents took place in two different parts of Dhaka on August 15 – on National Mourning Day – and both were avoidable. Both were allowed to happen by the state and its institutions because, despite their constitutional obligation to the public, protection of human lives is simply not a priority.
Let me dissect the accident that took place in Uttara: a girder of the BRT project fell from a crane on a private car, crushing five members of a family, including two children, to death. We already know that the operator at the control panel of the hydraulic crawler crane – which let the girder slip because it was carrying a load heavier than its capacity – did not have the required licence. We also know – inconceivable as it may be – that the street where the risky construction work was going on was not cordoned off, in clear violation of safety protocols. As the script goes, a case has already been filed against the concerned officials of China Gezhouba Group Co Ltd (the contractor firm) and the crane operator, construction work has been stopped by the DNCC mayor till safety can be ensured, and a five-member probe committee has been formed to investigate the incident. It is certainly some relief that action is being taken against the company that is directly implicated in the murder (after all, we've seen many instances of the government trying to protect powerful business quarters), but the Tk-4,268-crore (which is how much the BRT project costs) question is: Does the buck stop there?
Unfortunately, but predictably, efforts are already underway to distance state institutions from the private company that was leading the development work and to absolve the authorities of any and all responsibilities. The probe committee, in its primary investigation, has only found the contractor to be negligent, which is hardly surprising, given that the committee is headed by Neelima Akhter, additional secretary of the Road Transport and Highways Division and coordinator of the BRT-3 project. But how can the four implementing agencies of the BRT project – namely, Roads and Highways Department (RHD), Bangladesh Bridge Authority (BBA), Local Government Engineering Department (LGED), and Dhaka Bus Rapid Transit Company Ltd – simply get away by blaming the crane driver and some of his associates, when it is on these agencies to ensure that the contractors they have commissioned – and who are being paid with taxpayers' money – are abiding by safety protocols? Where are the safety officers of this project, and who are they reporting to? In interviews with the media, RHD officials bemoaned the construction companies' reluctance in paying attention to their warnings about safety guideline violations. It's as if the implementing partners have no control over their contractors, nor the capacity to monitor whether basic guidelines are being followed.
This is hardly the first time that such an "accident" has taken place at the BRT project site. During the project period, girders have slipped and fallen on pedestrians and construction workers on at least four separate occasions. In March last year, six workers sustained injuries after a part of a girder of the BRT project collapsed near Dhaka airport twice in one day. In July this year, a 30-year-old guard named Ziaur Rahman was killed and a pedestrian injured after a part of a girder fell on them in Gazipur. What should have been wake-up calls were swept under the rug, as per usual. But it's high time the government made the investigation reports of these previous "accidents" public, so that we can see what steps were recommended, what steps were ultimately taken to safeguard the site, and what actions were taken against those found negligent. Work has been halted now at the site reportedly till foolproof safety can be ensured; why was the same not done when Ziaur Rahman was killed? Or was the murder of a "lowly" guard not enough of a PR nightmare to warrant an appraisal?
The apathy of the authorities regarding public safety reveals the crux of the problem with our conception of development: the public, for whom these development projects are supposedly undertaken, are the last and least important stakeholders in the process. Their voices and needs don't even find a peripheral stage in the planning and implementation stages, even as crores of their hard-earned money are spent without accountability on lavish projects conducted without proper feasibility studies, with poor and faulty designs, and by substandard contractors who don't abide by minimum safety or quality standards. Every project sees numerous cost escalations and time extensions, for which no one is ever held to account, and the public must silently bear both the costs and the inconvenience, as the corrupt project officials (and ministers) continue to line their bank balances with their cuts of the proverbial pie. The public, who has been paying for these projects with their sweat and blood, must now apparently literally pay for them with their lives as well.
What's even more dangerous than the unguarded construction sites is the attitude of the authorities that they are above all accountability. What else can we expect of a government that no longer requires the public mandate to stay in power, or institutions whose foundations can no longer support the unapologetic corruption, dishonesty and nepotism of their officials? The authorities' attempt to downright deny their complicity in these structural murders is proof enough that nothing is likely to change in the near or far future.
Who knows, maybe next time it will be you, or me?
Sushmita S Preetha is the head of the Editorial department at The Daily Star.