I’m in Dhaka at the moment, as I had a meeting at VSO office. Coming to Dhaka is always an ordeal, because the journey from Sylhet to Dhaka by bus takes about four and a half hours to go nearly 250 miles, and then the four mile journey from the bus station in Dhaka to the office takes about two hours.
I’ve written before about how the traffic in Bangladesh, Dhaka especially, must be the worst in the world. Not only is there utter gridlock, but when you add the heat, noise and pollution it’s just hell. This time I ended up walking the last mile, at one point my taxi driver had the time to switch the engine off, go and have a cup of tea from a road-side stand, and a cigarette, and we still hadn’t even moved an inch.
To compound the problem, Bangladeshi drivers have seemingly no regard for safety, and so the obvious problem is that not only are accidents extremely likely, if and when they do occur, the chances of an ambulance reaching you within an hour is…well, forget it.
And on Sunday, the lethal cocktail of non-existent emergency services and a gridlocked road network finally exploded in to public consciousness.
A major fire broke out in the centre of Dhaka, in the offices of some major tv stations. Thousands of people came out to watch, I also was crawling in the traffic alongside, and it was awful because it quickly was apparent that so little could be done. Two helicopters were circling over head, but there was no sign of a major effort by the fire services, and although there was one brave firemen being lifted up to try and get to the stricken floor, his crane didn’t reach that far.
Four people died and hundreds were injured. This op-ed from one of the main papers describes vividly the agony of watching the fire and knowing that almost nothing adequate could be done, and it was partly due to fatally lax safety provisions. It also has photos of the blaze.
As I’ve said, I like the fact that Bangladesh isn’t a nanny state like Britain, and there aren’t pointless rules and regulations governing ‘your safety’ just so the operator of a service isn’t culpable if you have an accident. But the concept of health and safety here seems to be non-existent, and there’s a big difference between trying to avoid all accidents, and making sure that accidents don’t turn in to tragedies.
When VSO UK sent their Health and Safety officer here, to inspect practice in country offices, it was hilarious because he wandered around with his clipboard like he was exploring a house of horrors. But the fire on Sunday shows the true consequences. VSO Bangladesh have recently bought a nice new flat on the fifth floor. There are bars on all the windows, and no alternative fire-exit.
One of the volunteers complained, so they were provided with a huge rope-ladder, which wouldn’t have looked out of place in an Indiana Jones film. The volunteers invited the VSO Bangladesh staff round to test it in a ‘drill’. Of course, it took three men five minutes to unravel the ladder, and then they found out that it would never fit through the tiny hole they’d cut for it in the window bars. So in a real fire, everyone would have been in big trouble, because you can’t expect anyone to save you.
Of course, for a country as poor as Bangladesh and with as many problems as Bangladesh has, it’s understandable that public health and safety isn’t the number one priority. But there’s been a lot of talk that all the major institutional and socio-political problems that blight Bangladesh actually are of very little concern to the vast majority of Bangladeshis. If you live in poverty and can barely read or write, how separate your country’s judiciary is from the Executive isn’t going to bother you.
So much as there’s great work being done to aid Bangladeshi’s development in a more abstract sense, this fire also shows that just simple things would make a huge difference to the living conditions of Bangladeshis. Working traffic lights. Fire-extinguishers in offices. It’s not too difficult to save lives.