TAMPACO: Getting away with murder

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By rahnuma ahmed

Tampaco Foils Ltd, BSCIC industrial area in Tongi, early hours of September 11, 2016. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Unlike Rana Plaza where the stench of corpses wafted over when we were still half a mile away, there was no such smell at Tampaco.

Unlike Rana Plaza where the workers got a minute or so before the nine-storey building collapsed, at Tampaco it was just a matter of seconds, a firefighter told me. A huge explosion, the whole thing was burnt to a cinder.

Unlike Rana Plaza where news of the collapse led to worker protests in the industrial areas of Dhaka, where thousands of garment workers walked out, set fire to at least two factories, smashed vehicles and demanded death penalty for the building owner Sohel Rana and the owners of the garment factories (five) located in the building, where workers in neighbouring Narayanganj city vandalised five garment factories, where workers clashed with police who fired rubber bullets and tear gas— nothing happened at Tampaco. Daze, shock, horror, grief, of course. But nothing else, no protests.

According to government figures, thirty-two people, including two riksha passengers, the riksha driver, and an adolescent boy whose house was next to the factory building, died in the Tampaco Foils factory fire on September 10, 2016. Nine had been ‘missing,’ DNA matches last month brought their number down to five. According to an investigation conducted by the Titas Gas Transmission and Distribution Company, the fire was caused by chemicals which had been stored unsafely. Initially it was thought a boiler explosion had caused the devastating fire but after both boilers were discovered intact, sources close to the probe body said they suspected a booster explosion. The factory was consuming ‘at least twice the permitted amount’ of gas when the explosion occurred.

The owner of Tampaco Foils, former BNP lawmaker Syed Mokbul Hossain (nickname, ‘Lechu Mia’, Sylheti for lichu, ‘lychee’ in English), was accused of culpable homicide in two cases filed at Tongi thana. He was granted anticipatory bail by the High Court on November 21 and instructed to surrender before a lower court. The Gazipur lower court granted him bail, while five others including his son, were sent to prison.

When Shahidul Alam, photographer, and I reached Tampaco in the early hours of September 11, nearly twenty-three hours after the explosion, orange flames lit up rows of windows on the top floors ever so brightly, against an almost pitch dark sky. Feeling vacuous, I stood in the street where the main gate and the guard house had been, mangled iron, bricks and singed aluminium foil packets spilled out onto the street, like the spewed-out guts of a slaughtered animal. Was anyone alive, could anyone be alive, however feebly? I met a young woman several days later, the resident of a flat located in the street behind, she would keep returning to the ruins, sitting and chatting with newly-widowed women and other distraught family members, for inordinate hours. Mesmerised by the horror, unable to stay away. ‘I saw someone waving a hand from the window but it was impossible to go and rescue him. By then everything was up in flames.’ A firefighter had absentmindedly murmured earlier, it takes four hours for a body to burn to a cinder, and now it’s been twenty-four.

The ruins were still smouldering after fourteen days.

Unlike Rana Plaza I came across men who spoke for the owner from Day-2, which is when I’d first been there. A machine operator in his early forties told me, the owner is a good man, it wasn’t his fault. ‘I took four dead to the hospital, I could recognise only two of them, the faces of the two others were burned beyond recognition. It was the owner who provided the money. I had none, how else could I have done all the running around, from one hospital to another.’ An article a fortnight later mentions a section of workers had formed a human chain demanding that ‘false’ cases against the owner be withdrawn. And nearly twenty days later, when I was talking to one of Tampaco’s widows (identity concealed), I was introduced to a young man, an engineer at the factory, who eyed me suspiciously. He had only one answer to all my questions, ‘I wasn’t there. I don’t know what happened.’ He kept repeating, ‘I don’t care what you write. I’m not afraid, you write what you please.’ Since the conversation was getting nowhere I decided to change track and asked him about his family instead. He spoke of his two little kids who were studying in a kindergarten, then burst out suddenly, ‘I took part in the human chain but not because the owner asked me to. There was no discontent at the factory, wages would always be paid on the 29th of each month.’

However, Mizanur Rahman Khan points out, even though Tampaco claimed it met international safety standards and was fully compliant, the building did not have a proper staircase. A steel stairway had been added on the outside of the five-storied building structure, as had two lifts, which were used to convey ingredients for cigarette packet foils. Workers were not issued any appointment letters, there were no benefit schemes like provident fund, pensions or insurance; workers were only issued ID cards with photos, no designation was mentioned. No service book either; employees and workers could now claim two months overtime pay, nothing else. (Prothom Alo, September 25, 2016).

Photographer and activist Taslima Akhter (‘Lima,’ to all) had accompanied me on Day-2, we spoke to the adolescent’s aunt who told us Ashik had been buried in Muktagacha, his father, a casual labourer, had gone crazy with grief. On the fateful day, Ashik had walked out of their one-room dwelling nearly half-asleep, he had squatted by the open drain to take a pee, the factory’s wall fell on him, he died on the spot; it also fell on their dwelling. The family lost their son and home, in a single blast.

Nargis Begum, probably in her mid-thirties, spoke of how she had ran to the factory with her three children when she heard of the blast, ‘There was fire all over the place, I was crying and wailing in front of the factory gates. I searched for my husband at both ends. I saw one of his colleagues, I asked him, where is my husband? My elder son suddenly collapsed, he’s mentally disturbed, I was worried I woudn’t be able to save him. I handed him over to a woman, sister, please look after him. They bought cold bottled water from a nearby shop, poured it over his head, they took him home in a riksha. He saw a garbage truck and kept screaming, they are going to take away my father’s laash (body) in this truck and throw it away, we won’t find his laash, what will we do? But his father’s laash had been found, but I hadn’t been able to recognise him. His friends found it on the first day, they later came to where I sat crying for Rafiqul (Islam) and told me, why didn’t you claim his body? I told them, I hadn’t recognised him, they gave me a photo of the laash, I came home, yes, it was my husband’s, I recognised the T-shirt, the trousers. But the laash couldn’t be traced so they took samples from my children for a DNA test.’ Oh my god! Horrified, I asked Nargis, ‘And where’s your husband’s laash now, has he been buried?’ ‘No, no it’s in the DMCH (Dhaka Medical College and Hospital) morgue. I went there four days ago, I went to the morgue, I saw lumps of rotten, I saw worms this big crawling out, the place smelt awful, I threw up. I don’t have the shokti (will) to see, there were six corpses in a cluster, there were countless other bodies in the morgue, strewn all over the floor. I fainted.’ ‘Did you recognise his clothes?’ I asked. ‘No, I saw nothing, only the worms crawling out, I fainted. I’m now waiting for the DNA results.’

Robiul Islam grieved for his brother-in-law Anisur Rahman, a machine operator, ‘He was on the afternoon shift which began at 2 pm, but he changed it to the morning one (6 am), he wanted to go buy a cow for Korbani Eid. His helper said he shook hands with him, but after that, nothing more. I have three sisters, he was the best jamai. He was very devout, very helpful. I was in trouble once, no one else came forward, he loaned me a large sum of money but never asked me when I would return it.’

I heard of someone else who had received a call on his mobile phone just as he was about to enter the factory gates. He wanted to read the name of the caller and stepped out. The blast occurred. He was safe.

I spoke to Mohd Rokon’s sister, he had worked as the factory electrician’s helper. Rokon had hurt his head, he had required 42 stitches, 14 on his face. He had been released from the DMCH but his stitches had become infected, ‘threads from the dressing were coming out from the stitches.’ Rokon had been re-admitted, this time to the Tongi General Hospital.

The worker who had defended the factory owner was deeply troubled, ‘What will happen now, what will I do? I have a wife and children to feed, there is no factory.’ As was the engineer, unsure whether he should pack up and leave for their village home, ‘The house rent alone is ten thousand taka.’

BAT (British American Tobacco) and Nestle were among Tampaco’s multinational clients, their responses were disgraceful. BAT claimed, Tampaco had complied with regulations until 2015. Whereas a Nestle spokesperson, in reponse to the queries of Human Rights Watch, wrote back to say, health and safety shortcomings noted in 2011, had been rectified by December 2012. Tampaco’s other clients include the state-owned Essential Drugs Company (it supplies medicine to all public hospitals), and privately-owned companies such as: Akij Group, Pran Group, Ispahani, Cocola Food Products Ltd., Fu-Wang Foods Ltd., Abul Khair Group, Molla Salt, Haque Biscuits & Bread, ATN Food, Nabisco Biscuit, Aftab Foods, BD Foods. None of them gave any indication of remorse.

I was once asked what I had been scribbling in my notebook. I was in a crowd of mostly men, all civilians, connected to rescue efforts at Tampaco in some manner or the other. He introduced himself as belonging to the Industrial Police, and offered some free advice, ‘Don’t write anything negative.’ ‘I don’t think negative or positive is the issue, something awful has occurred, people are sufering, shouldn’t I be writing about it?’ I hadn’t expected his reply, ‘True, reporting is not the problem. Why should such incidents occur. Old factory buildings should not be allowed to run, bas.’

The Gazipur district administration called off the joint rescue operation conducted by the army and the fire service a month later. Lt Col Md Azam of the 14th Independent Engineers Brigade, acting mayor of Gazipur City Corporation Asadur Rahman Kiron, and Gazipur Fire Service Deputy Director Akhteruzzaman were present at the programme. I had a niggling feeling that the demolition was handed over to contractors close to the owner, I questioned journalists both local and in Dhaka, no one seemed to know or was willing to comment. Some family members of dead workers told me they had been offered jobs in the ‘new’ Tampaco factory which would soon be built. Others tell me, a petition signed by workers and family members had accompanied his bail plea, that bail had been granted on grounds of his poor health.

Monetary assistance (not compensation) was provided to families of dead workers (3 lakh taka each), and to those injured, at a government programme held at the IRI Auditorium in Tongi on February 9, 2017. The cheques were handed out by Md Mujibul Haque, state minister for labour and employment, and Zahid Ahsan Russell MP, also present was the employment ministry secretary Mikail Shiper, and several other high-ranking government officials. There was a lot of talk about the untiring efforts of the district administration, army and firefighters to rescue the victims, the forgoing of Eid holidays, the prime minister’s personal concern, the media’s largely constructive role in reporting the incident, future government plans of setting up a hospital in Tongi for burn victims, setting up a large dormitory which would house a thousand women workers, the need for industrial development— all framed by continual references to the ‘month of February,’ of how assistance should have been provided earlier, but they had waited for the month of February because it was the ‘month of sacrifice,’ the month when brave sons of the soil had sacrificed their lives for their mother tongue. I couldn’t help but notice how the Gazipur DC slipped a reference to Syed Mokbul Hossain in his speech, he is from my nana shoshur’s (wife’s maternal grandfather) village, of how the entire programme was managed and coordinated by the Tampaco management (lining up family members to receive cheques, facilitating quick cheque-receipt, prompting the next in line).

There was no mention of a crime having been committed, of the necessity for justice to be meted out.

Syed Mokbul Hossain has been seen at Dhaka Club, a close friend vouches. What does he see in his glass, I wonder. Worms crawling out, I hope.

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