Dhaka, Bangladesh – At the site where the eight-storey Rana Plaza once stood, hundreds of Bangladeshis sifted through the rubble, looking for any sign of life. Thousands more hovered around the spot, gaping at the shocking spectacle. Volunteers tried to peek in from RF Tower, the half-finished building next door, screaming “Is anyone there?”
Shariful Haque and his friends were trying to tunnel through from RF Tower to rescue a group of six people stuck inside the boiler room in Rana Plaza, when they heard a loud noise. Fearing that RF Tower was collapsing too, they rushed out. Eventually, ignoring their own safety, they went back inside to rescue the victims they had left behind. Then they went back the next day, and the day after that.
“At least 10 to 12 hours were spent on each rescue,” Shariful recalls. “Many victims had to have their arms or legs cut off at the site.”
When Rana Plaza folded in on itself on April 24, it presented Bangladesh with a scene of devastation it was not prepared for in any way. The building, which housed five garment factories and had been declared unsafe just the day before it collapsed, trapped at least 3,000 people underneath the debris.
The death toll has crossed 600, and is expected to double as more bodies are found. But in the week that followed the collapse, more than 2,000 people were saved from impending death by good Samaritans who rushed in from across the country.
Despite their own heroic work, even volunteers like Fahmim Ferdous are critical of the rescue effort. “The first thing that struck me at the site was all the bystanders,” Fahmim says. “There were people looking on outside, inside, everywhere. It was a very chaotic situation, which is understandable, but it could have been more organised. It could have been handled better.”
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The government’s recue preparedness has been widely slammed, as it left the brunt of the work for common people like Fahmim and Shariful. Reports that offers from the UK and UN to send in a small team of experts were rebuffed have sparked public outrage.
But lack of foresight on the part of the authorities was not just a problem in the aftermath of the collapse – it helped cause it.
“Rana Plaza was designed as a shopping mall,” says Shariful, who works as an architect at a firm in Dhaka. “A factory building needs to be designed in a completely different way, keeping in mind the load it will need to bear of all the machines and the workers inside, and the vibrations produced by the machines.”
The vibrations of the electricity generator were the last thing Rikta Moni, an 18-year-old worker in the building, remembers before catastrophe struck. “It happened barely two seconds after the generator was turned on,” she says. “I went towards the exit and I had barely gotten to the stairs when I started falling. I didn’t know where I was, all I could feel was that I was falling down somewhere very deep.”
Fahmida Khatun, head of research at the Center for Policy Dialogue think-tank in Dhaka, blames the collapse on the lack of proper governance in the country.
“Most buildings don’t follow the building code of conduct, so it’s easy to get away with these unregulated ways of constructing buildings,” she explains. “Those sitting in the regulatory bodies don’t do their work properly, due to a lack of efficiency, lack of incentives, and corruption.”
Even the country’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has claimed that 90 percent of the buildings in the Bangladeshi capital breach building codes. No authority, however, seems to be willing to take responsibility for a problem that could result in a future disaster whose scale would easily dwarf this present one.
“If there is a major earthquake, 70 percent to 90 percent of our buildings will be in danger of collapse,” says Kazi Arif, a senior architect in Dhaka, one of the most densely populated cities in the world. The capital, which has an official population of 12.8 million, is located on a fault line.
“We will not find a single person for the rescue work if a massive earthquake hits the metropolitan in the future,” Hasina said at a meeting of her party leaders the day after the Rana Plaza collapse.
Arif says constructing a building in the city requires permissions from nine different organisations. However, many owners take shortcuts, bribing officials or exceeding what they’re permitted to do. Rana Plaza, for instance, flouted rules limiting it to five floors, building eight floors instead.
“If proper channels were used, such a disaster could have been avoided,” Arif says. “But it takes a lifetime waiting for the permits, and people don’t want to deal with that. So people have to go through the proper steps, but the authorities also need to change their system.”
“All buildings have to be made ready for earthquakes up to Richter scale 8.0. This has been the case since 2008, I think,” says Md Golam Mostofa, director of development control at Rajuk – the Capital Development Authority of Bangladesh.
Arif says that it will not be possible to fix the earthquake-prone buildings constructed before then, as the problem lies with their foundations.
“Once the [flawed] foundation has been laid, there’s not much you can do,” he says, adding that the only option is to have the old buildings demolished. Mostofa says 321 buildings in the city have been identified as hazardous and the Dhaka City Corporation has been asked to demolish them.
Rana Plaza should have been one of them. Despite an evacuation order, the workers were forced to enter the factories on the day of its collapse.
“We knew that the wall had cracked,” Rikta says.
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“I was a little scared of something happening,” remembers Rina, a 15-year-old survivor who is currently being treated at a hospital. “Around 9am, the electricity went off. Everyone was a little tense, we all stood up so we could run immediately, in case anything happened.”
Rina spent the whole day pinned next to two corpses before she was eventually rescued. Nearly in tears as she recounted her experience, she says: “I kept screaming for help until the night. I screamed that everyone had died around me, was I also going to die? What if no one could hear my cries? My breath started leaving me, I couldn’t talk.”
Khatun warns that if the industry in Bangladesh wants to continue growing, it cannot afford more disasters like this. “Tazreen was not so long ago,” she says, referring to the garment factory fire at Tazreen Fashion in November last year that killed at least 117 workers.
Rana Plaza isn’t the first case of a garment factory in Savar crushing its workers to death. In April 2005, the Spectrum factory collapse killed 64 workers.
Walt Disney has already withdrawn its orders from Bangladeshi suppliers, and other retailers are threatening to rethink their links with the industry here.
Increasingly labelled as deathtraps, factories are pledging reforms. But the industry’s problem too lies with its foundations.
The high-rise headquarters of the BGMEA, the garment factory owners’ association, preens proudly over Dhaka in the heart of the capital. It is illegally built on public land.
The garment sector has grown rapidly in the past two decades to become the world’s second largest exporter of clothing after China. It accounts for 80 per cent of the country’s exports. But the industry has been built on the back of the country’s abundance of cheap labour, who have always been regarded as expendable.
As factory owners compete to slash prices to attract global brands, the cost is counted in human lives.