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TURNING A BLIND EYE

- State apathy led to Bangladesh’s worst-ever industrial disaster

As Muhammad Yunus, the Grameen Bank pioneer, said on Wednesday, Bangladesh’s worst-ever industrial disaster was both predictable and man-made. The April 24 collapse of the eight-storey Rana Plaza in Dhaka, killing more than 1,100 people and injuring 2,500, was as much the product of greed as the Saradha money-collecting scheme, which is likely to ruin thousands of innocent investors in the Indian half of Bengal. Both testify to a get-rich-quick frenzy whose most visible symbol is the ubiquitous promoter. The vernacular dalal describes the phenomenon better.

It would be self-defeating to denounce the profit motive without which there can be no productive activity. But Dhaka’s tragedy is a reminder that though “big government” and militant trade unionism are generally condemned nowadays, it would be calamitous for the State to abdicate its supervisory role. Eric Hobsbawm was right to warn that the interests of neither culture nor society can be left to the tender mercies of the free market. The motivation and methods of promoters — whether they build substandard buildings, peddle fraudulent savings schemes or fix soccer and cricket matches — make them another “unacceptable face of capitalism” to quote Edward Heath. Even smart young “relationship managers” in multinational banks are dalals of a kind, being less anxious to provide normal banking services than to inveigle clients into buying investments and insurance whose high premium and risks are tactfully suppressed. The streams of anonymous telephone callers selling something or other are worse.

Bangladesh’s garments industry’s humble beginnings pay tribute to native resourcefulness. I recall the surprise of seeing evening gowns and dinner jackets dangling from clothes lines along the Padma’s banks in the 1960s in what was still East Pakistan. Charitable Western organizations unthinkingly sent these shipments of incongruous attire during a succession of natural disasters. Clever villagers picked out the stitching and made saleable garments from the washed and ironed material. Secondhand clothes began to be specially imported for what had become a profitable cottage industry until Bangladesh’s own textiles enabled entrepreneurs to seek foreign orders. Today, the industry is second only to China’s in size. Its four million employees are mainly young women. Exports — at least 60 per cent being destined for Europe — earn $19 billion. The smart coat-and-skirt suit a Bangladeshi friend in the business once gave my wife could have come from any European fashion house.

But the pittance paid to workers recalled Thomas Hood’s heart-rending poem, “The Song of the Shirt”, long before Pope Francis spoke of “slave labour” and the European Union threatened sanctions. It would be unfair, however, to blame Western buyers for the disaster. Pictures of clean, young, idealistic men and women with placards proclaiming “Shame”, “Never Again” and “Cheap Clothes = Sweat Shops” outside Primark, the down-market London retailer, merely confirm that some Westerners carry a rock of colonial guilt on their shoulders and cry out to do penance. True, Primark and other brands like Zara, Matalan, Mango and Benetton shifted their custom from China to Malaysia to Indonesia to Vietnam to Bangladesh as wages and overheads rose in each country. Yunus’s plea for a minimum uniform international wage, even a paltry 50 cents an hour, might reduce country-hopping. But it will not counter the local avarice and corruption that are really to blame.

Sheikh Hasina Wajed says the owners of the five garment factories in Rana Plaza ignored cracks in the walls caused by the vibrations of their heavy machines. So obviously did her government’s building inspectors. They seemed to have turned a blind eye to the defects of a building on swampy ground whose poor design, bad materials and inadequate fire-safety measures caused the tragedy. No wonder Rana Plaza’s owner tried to flee the country and was caught at the Benapole checkpost. He would have felt at home among Indian promoters who also try to get away with ramshackle construction using substandard materials that result in periodic devastating fires in public halls and cinema houses. Despite her long background in Britain and many contacts there, Mrs Wajed doesn’t seem to have learnt anything from the additionally stringent ventilation, gas and electricity safety regulations David Cameron introduced for landlords and the strictness with which they are enforced.

Bangladeshi exporters would have pocketed even bigger profits if Western buyers paid an ethical price for their purchases. Tailors wouldn’t have benefited for no employer, especially in Asia, willingly raises wages. Nor does any tenant voluntarily increase the rent. Even if rents did go up, landlords would be most unlikely to invest their higher takings in sturdy foundations, shock-proof walls and other essential safeguards except under duress. South Asia’s grab-as-grab-can commerce depends on government collusion. Neither Mohammed Sohel Rana in Bangladesh nor West Bengal’s Sudipta Sen would have flourished without political, administrative and police protection.

There are exceptions to every generalization, and there may well be situations where promoters serve a genuine public need. On the whole, however, these not-so-hidden persuaders extend advertising, public relations and salesmanship to preying on human gullibility in a barely legal twilight area among political parties, municipal authorities and the urban underworld. Although official intervention usually means another dimension of corruption, it’s the only solution. Governments alone can call a halt to this kind of criminal exploitation. However callous or corrupt, they remain the only authority accountable to the public that can also hold others responsible for their actions in a world of rampant con men.

Every reader has a private store of anecdotes about unscrupulous operators. The violence against a Jadavpur University professor and the housing society secretary posting internet cartoons was the handiwork of goons acting for promoters with an eye on the New Garia Housing Society. A large and seemingly reputable property developer with some very distinguished clients called off a sale to me when I wanted certification of title and conversion of land use from agricultural to residential. Inquiries suggested the promoter had legally acquired and converted only some pockets of his sprawling acres. Possession being nine-tenths of the law, he was emboldened to build bungalows, flats and other facilities all over the estate, relying on muscle power and political patronage to protect his investment. There’s nothing to stop an engineer turning promoter, building shoddy houses with substandard materials and then signing the completion certificate. The common feature is cutting costs to maximize gains. The Bangladesh government would probably have tried to hush up the Rana Plaza tragedy if it hadn’t been for the uproar in Europe.

Here’s a readymade election issue for Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party to take up instead of championing fundamentalists or protecting war criminals. Mrs Wajed, too, would have a better claim on posterity’s respect if she tries to ensure the garments industry’s healthy survival instead of squandering time, energy and expense on settling old scores. The absence of political, as opposed to social, unrest over both the Rana Plaza and Saradha scandals is a sad reminder of how little there is to choose between our ruling and opposition parties.

There’s similar exploitation in the West too. Chinese and Korean illegals slave away in New York sweatshops. The 20 or so Chinese who drowned while harvesting cockles in England’s Morecambe Bay didn’t have even basic equipment like a compass, map, tide timetable or mobile phone. Not one of them spoke a word of English. All that my suit’s “Made in England” label meant, said sceptical English friends, was that some poor Bangladeshi woman wore her eyes out stitching it in London’s East End. Westerners exploit unwanted and therefore expendable (in their view) foreigners; we exploit our own people. Twenty-first Century Asia is no better than 19th-Century England where Hood’s seamstress “plying her needle and thread … In poverty, hunger, and dirt”, lamented “Oh! God! That bread should be so dear, / And flesh and blood so cheap.”