Sunday, May 5, 2013

Dhaka (Savar): Bangladesh's Latest Tragedy

Foreign powers and conquerors have often invaded the Subcontinent, but only England managed to subjugate the entire Sub-continent. Unity was not meant to last. England’s grant of independence resulted in the Bloody Partition; India, to the geographic extent possible, was split between Muslims and non-Muslims. The Punjab, the ancestral home of the Sikhs, was divided. The Muslims headed west to the new Pakistan and the Hindus and Sikhs east to India. Bengal on the other side was split in half. This economically poor area had the predominately Muslim eastern half join with Pakistan and the Hindu west joined India as West Bengal. The two parts of Pakistan were separated by both India and politics. 700 miles of India separated the two halves of Pakistan. The military and political elite of the western part, Pakistan proper, controlled the country, such that Bangladesh was treated like a poor stepchild. Cyclone Bhola ravaged Bangladesh in 1970, killing up to 500,000 (accurate counts are impossible in these tragedies). The government’s response was weak, leading to unrest in Bangladesh. The response was sending in the military to suppress unrest in Bangladesh, unleashing a civil war. India supported Bangladesh, which won independence with the help of the Indian Army. Refugees had poured into Calcutta. George Harrison and Ravi Shankar organized the Concert for Bangladesh to raise funds for the refugees. Two concerts in Madison Square Garden, a three-album release, and a movie raised funds. The real value of the Concert for Bangladesh was to alert the world, especially Americans, of the existence of Bangladesh. Famine struck Bangladesh in 1973-74, and a military coup occurred in 1975. The government has alternated between a civilian democracy and military dictatorship since independence with several leaders being assassinated. Another cyclone struck in 1991 killing 140,000. Bangladesh is a poverty stricken country. The population zoomed from 67.8 million at independence in 1971 to over 160 million today, all on a small land base. Shipbuilding, pharmaceuticals, and garment manufacturing have become leading industries for the country. The garment industry accounts for 80% of the nation’s export revenues, reaching $20 billion in 2012. Of course it did. The easiest, cheapest industry for a developing country to enter is textiles. Labor is cheap and sewing machines inexpensive. Retailers, such as Disney, The Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Wal-Mart, Target, Sears, and Benetton, Macy’s, search for the lowest cost producers in today’s global economy. The finished products, such as shoes or sweatshirts, are then marked up to high prices, maximizing profit margins. Starting wages in Bangladesh can be as low as $40/month, 1/4 those of China. Bangladesh now trails only China and Italy in garment exports. Over 5,000 garment factories are in Bangladesh. Worker safety and other working conditions are not an imperative for the manufacturers except to the extent that the American and European buyers, pushed by governments, politicians, demonstrators and adverse publicity, demand and monitor safe working conditions. The third world manufacturers can be compared to the sweatshops of America’s garment industry. Reform came to America a century ago with the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Fire on March 25, 1911. 129 women and 17 men died when trapped on the 8th through ten floors in their sweatshop. The owners had locked the doors, preventing access to the stairwells and exits. Several victims jumped to their deaths. Most victims were between 16 and 23. The Triangle Shirtwaist Tragedy led to significant labor reforms in New York and The New Deal. A new tragedy struck Bangladesh on April 24 at 9:00AM in Savar, a suburb of Dhaka. The Rana Plaza, an 8 story building with 5 garment manufacturers, collapsed with the floors pancaking on each other. 3,000 garment workers were in the building at the time. 620 bodies have been recovered so far while another 650 survivors, often in critical condition, are hospitalized. Rescue workers often had to amputate limbs on the scene to free victims. This human tragedy exceeds the Triangle Shirtwaist. Savar was a tragedy waiting to happen, just like the Triangle Shirtwaist Tragedy. Hundreds of similar buildings, poorly constructed, built on the cheap unsafe buildings, exist in Bangladesh. Sohel Rana built the Rana Plaza in 2007. It was probably doomed from the start. First, he filled in a pond, which we call wetlands. Second, the design specs were for a five story building of shops and offices. He subsequently added three additional floors without making any modifications to the existing structure, increasing, of course the stress load on the existing structure. Substandard steel rods, concrete, and bricks were used in the construction. Building codes were ignored, regulations minimal, and safety inspections essentially non-existent. Four generators were added to the upper floors to provide electricity in case of a power failure. An initial investigation believes the collapse was caused by the vibrations of the generators and the thousands of sewing machines. The construction was done either without permits or improperly issued permits. Bribery is a fact of life. Rana, the five owners of the garment factories, and three engineers have been arrested. Sarah’s mayor has been suspended from office. Rana and a municipal engineer are charged with murder. Bangladesh still has capital punishment. Rana had been arrested near the Indian border as he was preparing to escape to India. He will not escape Bangladeshi justice. Cracks appeared in the Rana Plaza the day before the collapse. A civil engineer inspected the building and warned that collapse was imminent. He said the building should be closed. Rana refused, asserting the garment manufacturers could not afford to lose production. The Savar disaster may prove an economic tragedy for the country. One politician, who also owns a garment manufacturer, claims 14 million families depend on the industry. Many companies were pulling their orders from high rise garment factories, which are the norm in Bangladesh because of the shortage of land, even before April 24. Disney announced after the building collapse that it will no longer order merchandise from Bangladesh. Bangladesh is facing yet another disaster in its short existence as it attempt to emulate China and India in improving it economy.

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