It was a moment when the state of politics and vulnerability as far as who matters and who doesn’t in Bangladesh was made clear to all. When the Rana Plaza collapsed, the owner , a local AL bigwig managed to escape unhurt after being rescued by the local MP, but hundreds of poor workers were killed and many more still trapped under the rubble. Nothing could be more symbolic.
In the last few months many have lost their lives in a series of such industrial accidents which didn’t touch us much and won’t. We are busy upholding political positions and flags and are embarrassed to say that we really don’t care who lives or dies, particularly when it’s about a poor person, possibly a garments factory worker. They are the new poor, those who must die so that some may become rich.
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The Rana Plaza was owned by a person who is a local kingpin of the ruling party and how such a person came to own such wealth is another matter but there is no confusion that he could build a death trap with impunity. He was told by the engineers that this building was not stable at all and had developed cracks which pointed to a major fault in the structure. He swished away the observations saying that they were ‘just cracks in the concrete’. The garments factory owners with over 6000 workers were also told to shut the factories down as the building was unsafe. Nobody bothered and the very next day, the building collapsed.
It doesn’t matter who was responsible because we don’t have any sense of responsibility. What matters is that we are able to tolerate high rate of casualty and suffering if the victims are poor. Garments factory workers have become provider of a grim ‘entertainment’ of sort for those who are not poor and nothing can be done against them because they provide jobs to the poverty-stricken and give opportunities to others to make money. The groups who fight for their rights are themselves beneficiaries of the system so there is no way that things can improve dramatically if at all.
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Director of the Industrial Police Mostafizur Rahman has said that, “The Industrial Police had asked the owners of the factories to suspend operations after cracks were noticed.” “But the factories owners had ignored our directives and decided to open their units on Wednesday”.
Excuse me? Why have a police which nobody bothers to listen to? Unless it’s all for decorative purposes. Relatives of the workers who rushed to the disaster site were also blaming owners of the building as well as the factories’ for the tragedy. Many injured workers alleged the owners had forced them to join work on Wednesday.
“None of us wanted to enter the building. Our bosses forced us.”
The reason the owners could force them to enter the building was the issue of livelihood. The poor have no control over their own living and have no rights to protect themselves so they have no choices. Which is why their welfare never becomes a movement and nobody is willing to take any risk for them. In such societies, it really doesn’t matter if one dies or thousands die. More are ready and willing to step in and die. Numbers of dead have no meaning.
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But how Bangladesh is socially constructed is also clear from the history of politics of the last few months as we have seen the middle class explode in unprecedented fervour demanding that the war criminals be hanged. It has involved the entire middle class and the anger and rage have come out in a way never seen before through the Shahbagh Movement. Many liberals and lefties who are always talking of ‘chetona’ have advocated that the enemies of Shahbagh should be ‘tortured’ and be given ‘gono dholai’. The level of abuse hurled at each other on the social media and Facebook defies the traditional cultural values of a Bengali. Yet they all carry the identity of the new middle class whose iconic moment came with Shahbagh, which was a demand that was a matter dealing with war criminals, a national issue. One of the reactions of the Shahbagh Movement was the Hefazat which has caused acute anxiety in the urban middle class at the prospect of the 13 demands being implemented is too scary for them. They have no connection with the Qaumi madrassah system and their children will never study there. That’s where the RMG worker’s children go. The divide is clear.
It’s not very difficult to see why no Projonmo will rise to defend the poor because it essentially trumpets the rise of the middle class as a political force which can’t be ignored by the factory owning upper class who run Bangladeshi politics.
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Let us not be hypocritical and mourn these deaths. We will feel bad for a while and then forget them till the next disaster strikes. To us, the workers are numbers and while we may go insane at the slightest insult to our political causes and leaders, we shall after a token show of sympathy to the killed poor return to what really matters to us. While this also means that if buildings collapse without any provocation, most buildings will after an earthquake, for the moment, we can hide all that anxiety and wait for a political cause that excites us, not some wretched corpses of workers which pop up at regular intervals.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist, activist and writer.