Friday, May 03, 2013

Savar: Number games and the elitist enigma of deceit

by Mac Haque

'The truest characters of ignorance are vanity, pride and arrogance.' – Samuel Butler

The issue is not merely about a building named Rana Plaza with faulty structures that caved-in killing near 400 people, it is all about arrogance. It is this unrestrained criminality that leads to display of inherently vulgar mindsets and the knee jerk reactions of the power that be; in this case, the government of the day – which was so obvious, and so very predictable. However, in its entirety Savar leaves none of us looking any prettier either.

In flippancy and trivialisation (another by-product of arrogance), Savar came up as a dark comedy churned out at the expense of the marginalised, the poor, the vulnerable. Tragically an ever ready audience is available at all times, ever so sure to enjoy a good laugh on the poor, and about the poor. Never ever, have we been exposed to more irresponsibility, insensitivity and inefficiency of the state machinery as in the case of Savar? On the flip side, never ever have our own frailties been more exposed nor our wanton deceit in form of patron isation, sweet talks and crocodile tears been more explicitly repulsive as now.

Much as our elite would pretend that such episodes are ones that is expected, and possibly the incurred 'occupational hazards' that comes with feel good buzzwords such as 'development, progress and economic well being', the fact that an Awami League activist of Savar owned the building is not a mere chink that has political overtones. It is a case of deliberate and culpable mass murder that was permitted to happen in the public eye.  Yet by the look of things, there are good chances of this being buried, together with the nameless victims, in the rubbles of our conscience – if we have one left at all. The case just does not rest here. 

In the government intentions, the worryingly egregious and irresponsible utterances by no less than the home minister who found an opposition 'plot' in the building caving in due to 'severe shaking of the structure by pro-hartal activists', is equal to slamming our common sense very hard into the concrete columns that came crashing down, and yet leaving our face beautifully intact? I wonder why the opposition BNP having such fearful demonic monsters in its 'payroll' has been yet unable to 'shake off' the Awami League government in so many years! 

In the blatant disinformation melee, the bell that has sounded loud and clear, is the poor, the marginalised, the downtrodden of Bangladesh are only numbers – and ones that are expendable. In lying, in deceit we have created a desensitised cult of elitist and just to say that the government or the 'powers' indulges in the same, is a blatant error of judgment.  

We are collectively guilty; and like it or not, we are all indirect accomplices to the same mass murders that we are condemning today. Elitisms in our case, has nothing to do with respective and 'respectable' figures in bank accounts or in fat purses. It is a fast germinating, nearly endemic fetish that all of us aspire for, with wanton and reckless abandon. It fuels our greed. It makes us who we are. 

To imagine that 'garment factory owners' are the richest people in Bangladesh, ride the most expensive of cars brought off the blood of the poor, yet over the decades have not even cared to provide for a disaster management infrastructure, tells us what greed is and can be.  BGMEA is a convoluted cartel of murderers, worse than the Cosa Nostra.  

Since we have never addressed these issues, never ever cared, what did we do in meantime to placate citizen's ire? Yes… called for a day of national mourning, where we ritualistically placed the national flag at half-mast, but our televisions boomed the elitist 'good life' all day long. Savar was a passing show of how distant and alien from reality we have become.

Take for example more than seventy per cent of those that perished in the worst recorded case in the world of a building collapse, were women. The same women, who have to toil endless hours in sweatshops that masquerade as 'garments industries', where 'cheap labour' simply doesn't even amount to near subsistence wages, they are denied their pay packets in due time and especially during Eid festivals, their despair is heart rendering. 

The same women, who have to work under unimaginably harsh conditions, are forbidden the use of their cell phones to check up on their children back home, or respond to emergencies. As if that is not enough, tales of exploitation and sexual harassment are rampant, as much as the random victimisation, disappearance, killing, jailing and torture of those that protest these conditions. Unfortunately, never ever do these stories make 'news' in our otherwise vibrant, chic and slick media, and the ones that do are often side-lined or obliterated by political pressure – you guessed right, of the 'elite'.

It is not the first time such a calamity has hit Bangladesh, neither will it be the last, but what needs to be dealt with in all seriousness are the very tokenistic protests, the tribal behaviour in enraged Facebook statuses and social networks that in reality means nothing at all to the victims of these recurring tragedies. It only reveals the same elitist trappings that have ensnared us, the same feel-good retinue that will end faster than it even began, and up until the next tragedy hits us – things will stand dead still, as they usually do. 

Agreed, that life has an intense way of cajoling us back to our old habits, however instead of criticising the government, our politicians and the endless other stakeholders we wish to pin down heavily upon, we fail to take the trouble of finding out whether we care a hoot about the marginalised, the poor  – just not those working in garments factories – but overall?  
The plain answer – NO WE DO NOT. 

In better times, those who take on the struggle of the poor, the marginalised are labelled and brutalised as 'communist' and 'useless leftist'. Workers' rights rally rarely gets a crowd worth reckoning and those that speak up for the poor are never considered by the elite as 'cool and sexy'! 

And when tragedies strike, whether they are building collapses, fire incidents or even ferry sinking which takes huge tolls in human lives, all we do these days is SCREAM on Facebook, not because the whole world is listening, but more importantly we want ourselves to be heard, to the tack of our elitist friends and foes, that 'we were not sitting idle' – that we were part of the BIG NOISE huh… clap, clap. 

So, what did we do?

We flashed around grotesquely disturbing images of the dead and injured – and that in essence is our first sin. Every death has its dignity, and we have only added up to the indignity that fate has conspired to rob them off. Would we do similar things to our own kind?  Nah… that would be so 'improper and unrefined'.

We made appeals for blood donation – and each soul on Facebook did a great job – to the point that blood bags in excess of fatalities were received. By nightfall when it became clear that the state machinery was unprepared and unequipped; basic things like torches, rubber gloves, hexoblades, charger lights, oxygen cylinders etc were needed – a deluge of appeals for such essentials were made, and by the end of it all, a whole lot more will be in hand, than what was needed in the first place. 

There were also generous and genuine efforts at feeding and sheltering the victims, the injured but as of now; there are no demonstrable efforts for long-term help or citizen's initiative to the effect. We do not know at all about the hundred upon thousands that will go hungry for years, because the sole bread earner was killed. Tokenistic we have been, and tokenistic we will remain, to satiate our ego and wait for the dark clouds to pass.

However, where we have failed thus far in the battle of our conscience is to look at the larger issue of calamities, which not even the most advanced countries in the world with the best disaster management programmes are ever 'fully' prepared to cope with. 'What after Savar' – is a question we have not been asking – at least not now, and since bad luck hasn't paid us a cruel visit we bask in some comforts for a while – don't we? We are fortunate because we are alive, but please do look around folks! 

The hard-core issue is greed. Savar was the result of land grabbing and construction of an eight-storied building where six stories were approved. The greed came from renting out more space for garments factories where the poor worked. The same greed is replicated faithfully, just not in Dhaka but all across Bangladesh, in domestic flats, apartments and condominiums as well as ugly Malls and Plazas. When I scan the skylines in my neighbourhood, I can see dozens of illegally erected eight-storied building – as I am sure many readers would do the same in theirs. 

Lax building laws, wholesale corruption and the fact that Bangladesh is in an earthquake prone zone, does not make prospects of our survival in a calamity any easier than it did in Savar. Add to that the next to primitive disaster response mechanism we saw LIVE from Savar. Even with the Army coming in aid, it was left to the sheer dexterity of locals, nameless heroes who battled the odds and rescued survivors, mostly with their bare hands.

We live in comfort of our multi-storied apartments and lecture the world about how unsafe it is for the 'poor' working in garments factories. Have we ever thought about the glaring 'poverty' in our likely fate? 

What if an earthquake at 7 on the Richter scale strikes for a minute? How many of our pretty apartments and even prettier residents within will survive? When our buildings come crashing down on us, how many of us on Facebook will be around to make screaming status updates or appeals for blood, equipment and the entire juggernaut to activate itself, to rescue us? 
Imagine an earthquake and the entire Dhaka city flattened. Who will be on ground to rescue us? The 'poor', the 'rickshawalas', the 'housemaid and her family', the 'street darwan' or those living in the 'smelly bastis' – any other choices worth reckoning? Is there at all any hope that the government, the politicians or any of our pretentious elite will be around to save our lives? 

By some, will of providence, will itself will act as a catalyst to wash away our sins of thinking of the poor, the marginalised and downtrodden as creations of a lesser God. Fate will conspire to eradicate our greed that breeds elitism. Let us pray that we wake up to our senses and make a human effort at destroying the 'elite gene' from within our beings – forever, for it is only natural in nature's nature to be unmerciful.


Shock & Awe: NewAge Xtra, Friday, 3rd May 2013


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