by rahnuma ahmed
EVERYTHING SEEMED to come to a standstill as the death toll in the factory fire at Nischintapur kept rising. Death isn’t a question of numbers, even a single death which could have been prevented, is one too many. But still, the numbers were staggering.
Sunday’s newspaper headlines had said, nine. But as the day unfolded, the death toll shot up unbelievably; the numbers were conflicting — 110, no 124, later, down to 111. They still conflict, for, family members say some loved ones are still missing.
Numbing numbers. I stare at them blankly. I look at my partner Shahidul and wonder, what, if he’d been one of the 111 or so dead? I reach out and touch him. No, its nothing, I say, when he looks up.
But workers at Tazreen Fashion may be “missing” for another reason. Fifty-nine of the 111, which means more than half, were burnt beyond recognition. I heard a firefighter say on television, the bodies had been reduced to a skeleton. I couldn’t understand what he meant, not until I saw the pictures, what had been warm bodies only hours earlier, had become blackened and charred. Like coal. No flesh left. Too distressing to be published, they reminded me of fossil remains dug out by archaeologists, of people who had lived a thousand years earlier.
A nose pin dully glinted on one. Abir Abdullah, who’d taken the photograph, posted on ShahidulNews, writes, “It was difficult for me to take the photograph, disfigured still beautiful, with a small ornament visible on her destroyed nose. I felt sad to take the photo [but] at the same time I felt grief and anger inside me [I still took it wanting] to show [everyone] the gruesome portrait to [make them] understand and make the world realize, how much importance they get when dead but nothing when alive.”
Had the nose pin been given to her at her wedding, for, traditionally, it symbolises marriage. By her in-laws, or, maybe, by a brother or a sister, where is her husband now, thoughts race through my head. Did she have any children? What were her dreams, what had she wanted in life? Where was she born, does her mother know? How wrenching was her pain when she’d been informed, where did it hurt most? Was she reminded of the labour pangs she suffered when this daughter of her’s had been born, how many years ago was it, may be 20, 25? Most of the dead workers, say news reports, were between 18-22 years old. Life for them, was young. It was disfigured but still beautiful.
I wonder, would I have recognised Shahidul, what traces of him would I have looked for, in a body reduced to a charred, burnt skeleton?
Who cares about the dead in Nischintapur? The majority do. Callers to live talk shows on several privately-owned TV channels, spoke of murder, of gonohotta (genocide). A word Bangladeshis do not utter lightly because of 1971.
But the factory owners, the all-powerful BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association), the 42% lawmakers who are garment-owners, plus other lawmakers (outside the 42%) who represent business interests in parliament, state functionaries in ministries and government regulatory bodies who should be overseeing safety conditions in factories (but don’t, we have too few resources, they say; these departments and agencies are not dismantled and built anew because effective regulatory bodies would mean less profits) plus large swathes of the ruling class leading lives wrapped in zones of comfort — obviously don’t.
The Nischintapur factory fire is the worst in Bangladesh’s industrial history, one already strewn with innumerable deaths and injuries, caused by callous indifference and a reckless disregard for workers’ safety. Abiding by government rules and norms of human decency will interfere with raking in more and yet more profits, I thought, as I watched a BGMEA leader confidently assert on a TV talk show on Sunday night, work conditions and safety conditions in garment factories now, are far, far better than before.
How then could what happened have happened? How could the worst factory fire in Bangladesh’s industrial history have occurred? Do fat profits prevent one from thinking through the basics, apparent to viewers with an iota of conscience, aghast at what he had mouthed.
We have forty teams, say BGMEA leaders, they inspect each factory, prepare reports on what’s wrong so that these can be rectified. As a matter of fact, Tazreen Fashions was inspected on November 5. Fire drills were held.
Yeah, sure but how could what happened have happened? Not to mention the obvious fact that it is not BGMEA’s work to monitor safety conditions in factories.
The prime minister declared a national mourning day at a cabinet meeting, the deaths were oh so distressful, but greater news coverage was devoted to her rant on Koko (opposition leader Khaleda Zia‘s youngest son) and his corruption, he had squirelled away money in Singapore, aha, we’ve nabbed him now, her eyes gleamed.
I watched a surviving worker at Tazreen say, many of us rushed out when we heard the fire alarm ring but the manager came and told us, everything’s fine. Go back to work.
The problem, say BGMEA leaders, is the rush, the panic. The problem, they say, is mid-level management. The problem, they say, is the short circuit. No answers as to why there was an electricity connection in the first place in an area where large bales of cotton had been stored. It was the cotton, and, probably, chemicals too, say firefighters, which had created the unbearable heat, which had scorched, razed, burnt to the ground the machinery, burnt down people deperately trying to flee from the engulfing flames.
“Mid-level management” is an easy cop-out, it seeks to prevent questions being raised as to precisely why people who are callous and indifferent, who treat workers like cattle, who cuss and swear at them, who lock exits, who tell the workers to get back to work when a fire breaks out, are hired in the first place. The answer is ugly. To rake in more and ever-more profits.
The collapsible gate of the factory, said a surviving worker of Tazreen Fashion, was locked (nothing new). We couldn’t get out of the building, since the fire rose upwards from the second floor, many of us rushed up the stairs. Some jumped out of the windows. They met their deaths.
The stairs to the exit and the one to the storehouse were side by side, a flagrant violation of rules. As I watched BGMEA leaders blame the fire brigade for having issued safety licences, blame the factory inspector, I wondered how could they not just break down and cry? Is it because they are scared of being implicated? The “brave entrepreneur” story is a capitalist myth.
The enquiry reports, stress BGMEA leaders, will tell us what went wrong. What was the cause, wherein lay the failure. We shouldn’t be jumping to conclusions. Stale words which convince no one, as they remind us of previous “accidents”, of committees formed earlier to investigate previous accidents, of investigations conducted, teethless ones for, no one has yet been arrested for factory fires, no one has yet been punished. Garment wealth has also been chanelled into media houses, was there any connection between this and the news reporter, back from Ashulia, who, when asked by a newscaster to report on what he’d seen, answered, it was not an “accident.” We should not delude ourselves, it happens repeatedly, these people were killed.. He was cut short suddenly.
Six people died because they had jumped out of the windows to save themselves. What were their last moments like when, to save themselves they had met death instead? At which moment did their life end? Was it at the moment of impact, when their head hit the ground, thud, when the neck got disjointed, was it then that their life, left? Were all deaths similar? Or did someone live a bit longer, feel the pain, wracking, excruciating, intense, before life was squeezed out. Did he feel thirsty? Did he seek someone?
These are the questions I want BGMEA, and all the rest of the rotten, who in some manner or the other, directly, or indirectly, are complicit in the deaths of Tazreen Fashion’s workers — to answer. Publicly.
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