Sunday, July 24, 2011

Deaths of a young man and 43 students

The Independent
As I See It Column
July 22nd, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

I had written quite some time ago in this column about the dangers for pedestrians from falling building materials as builders do not take the minimum of safety precautions. Hence I was deeply saddened but hardly surprised that a life of a young man when a brick fell on his head and killed him instantly as he was walking by a under construction high rise building. What is surprising is that such deaths do not happen every day in good numbers because pedestrians walk past such under construction buildings everyday and somehow, perhaps by the Almighty’s mercy, escape death the way it befell on this unfortunate young man.

Equally unfortunate but on a scale much larger was the fate that befell the 43 school students in Mirarsarai in Chittagong. These school students were returning after watching a football match in an open truck that went off the road and into a ditch full of water sending them to their deaths. The unbelievable part of the accident was the fact that the truck was being driven by a helper of the driver!

In Bangladesh, human life has become the most dispensable commodity.. Otherwise such deaths should never have taken place. In the midst of the booming construction business in the city, we all see how the builders have taken away our roads. They pile construction materials on the footpaths as if they own these paths meant for the public to walk in safety. They bring in trucks and building machineries at night and do not care about disturbing people when many have to just sit up and wait till these “criminals” finish their illegal activities.

Most roads inside residential areas that are not meant for heavy trucks and construction machineries are destroyed at will by these builders. In many places, these builders take away even a part of the road, not satisfied with taking away the foot paths totally. The way they use these public space for their benefit places the pedestrians at risk. The pedestrians have to walk on the roads instead of the footpaths. It may be a matter of great discomfort for the people of Dhaka that we have the worst traffic jam in the world. But it is the traffic jam that is saving many lives because had traffic been moving fast, there would have been many more deaths because of the illegal activities of the builders.

The construction sites are death traps. Little or no safety precautions are taken to protect the pedestrians walking on foot paths/roads from falling materials such as bricks, rods, cement, etc. Thus the death of this school student is by no means an accident. It is the consequence of willful disregard for public safety in which the builder and the authorities supposed to supervise have failed to perform their duties. The builders also take no safety measures for workers many of whom regularly fall and die.

The deaths of the 43 school children were no accident either. Their deaths were due to the failure authorities in performing their duties. It was a cruel joke to read that the authorities apprehended 20 so called drivers with forged licenses. Helpers drive busses/trucks in incredible numbers in full knowledge of the authorities. In fact, there is a nexus of corruption here involving the traffic authorities that has been sustained, unbelievably, in full knowledge of both the authorities and the public. One has to go out to the roads that connect the cities and towns of Bangladesh to see madness that rules our roads, where the heavy vehicles are driven in a manner as they are nowhere else. Again, it is the congestion on these roads that saves many lives as these criminals who masquerade as drivers cannot drive as they wish.

After the death of the young man, 6 laborers were arrested. After the deaths of the 43 students, the authorities arrested 20 drivers. These actions by the authorities are a joke. In case of the student, those who need to answer are, first, the builders. By arresting the laborers who are themselves exposed to danger all the time by the builders’ utter indifference to safety,, the authorities have helped take some of the heat for the builders.

Second, the Rajuk authorities should have also been hauled for this death. Under the law, supervision of construction of every building in the city is the responsibility of this body. If it was doing its duty, most of the construction sites of the city would have been closed on even a liberal interpretation of safety standards and many deaths would not have occurred including that of this student.

Third, the law enforcing agencies themselves should have been taken to task for allowing the builders break laws by spreading all sorts of hazardous materials , including taking over foot paths and roads , around their building sites with no concern for safety of the public. Surely, these builders cannot be breaking laws with contempt without the connivance of the law enforcing agencies.

On the 43 deaths, the need is to answer a few basic questions that have not even been raised. First, how long will the authorities allow murders to be committed on our national highways by letting helpers and drivers with forged driving licenses drive on these roads whose numbers have never been accounted for but by common knowledge is a very large one. The graphic videos we see every day on news programs of private TV channels leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that such accidents are almost in all cases the result of incompetent and criminal driving where the law enforcing agencies keep on looking the other way.

The other question not asked is why the school authorities and guardians of the students allowed them to use a truck that is the most dangerous mode of transport in Bangladesh and one not meant for human transportation. It is good for the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to have visited the parents and relatives of those who died. However, these senseless and tragic deaths are occurring every day and in numbers that are increasing. The need of the moment is a national consensus to deal with these deaths that are not accidents but murders being committed because those who can stop these are not doing their jobs.

It is a great mystery that even after 4 decades of independence; we have between Dhaka-Chittagong where most of the deaths take place, roads that are a disgrace to the nation. The roads are virtual death traps and it is the traffic jam that saves many more lives being lost. The Dhaka-Chittagong highway has not been built so far not because of lack of finance but because of unethical reasons for which many in past governments are responsible.

A Judge has asked the builder of the site where the young man was killed to appear in the Court. This is encouraging. It is way past time to hold those responsible for failing to make buildings and roads safe, to task. We have capital punishment in this country. Why can’t we put the case of the helper who killed the 43 school students on a fast track and mete out the maximum punishment to him? For the builder who has been taken to Court, exemplary punishment should be served within the due process of law. Human life cannot be exchanged for money. Yet, to save lives why not impose on this builder a fine so hefty that other builders would be forced to make safety at building sites their first priority.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

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