Bangladesh: Burning Inside

My friend, Asif Saleh, wrote about a tragic fire in the congested old Dhaka last week where more than 100 people died. He points to issues in building codes and the lack of proper medical facilities to care for the wounded. As you read his accounts, try to think about how philanthropy can address these issues.

‘গরিবের প্রানের কোনো মুল্য নাই এই দেশে’, (There is no worth for poor people in this country) says the Biriwala in front of Dhaka Medical College.

I just returned from the burn unit of Dhaka Medical College. People are still trying to figure out there what just happened. The roads were too congested and small for the fire trucks to go in. Once they were in, pretty soon the water ran out and so they had to go back and get water again. In the process, more than 100 lives were in flames — just like that. By the time I went this morning, most of the bodies were dispatched to the morgue. I went in to the unit of the not so seriously injured ones at first.

As it happens in Dhaka Medical College, most of these emergency patients don’t have any bed in the first place. They are either in the lobby and the not so serious ones typically are in the floor. But it did not seem that way yesterday with the serious ones lying in the floor bed as well. A man, half burnt, lying in pain, a mother sitting with his young son with burnt hands, father carrying his 7 year old with burnt legs and promising him what he would bring him from the store when he gets better. Most patients, however, are blankly staring not sure what has hit them. A few journalists are reporting. They are also tired from reporting, I guess. The nurses could barely keep their eyes open. I slowly walk towards the serious injuries — or attempt to move there and I can’t.

Driving down in the city, you can not tell that such a crisis has hit. Turned on the radio and DJ is saying ‘মন খারাপ করা চলবে না, নতুন দিন, নতুন সম্ভাবনা ‘. (We can not lose heart, new day brings new possibilities) These people were invisible. They remain invisible and what difference does it make whether they go in 100s or 1000s.

As Dhaka’s infrastructure starts crumbling, these are early indicators of perhaps an impending disaster. The city has grown many folds but very little money has gone into the service sector to match the requirement. The fire brigade, the public hospitals have little money to cope with the demand of the times. These discussions are barely in the public discourse. Because people who are receiving the brunt of these ‘accidents’, have little say in this discourse. But in all likelihood, as tomorrow comes, if tomorrow comes, we will forget about it and move on to the next disaster. Just like we have moved on from the accident that struck the day before — the collapse of the unapproved 5 storied building (set up on a low lying land without proper foundation ) on to the shanties next door killing another 25 odd people or better yet, we will pretend that these did not even happen and submerge ourselves on to the world cup fever in a few days. If the size and amount of Brazil-Argentina flags on the roof tops of Dhaka is any indicator, that is the more likely thing to happen.

We are a ‘resilient’ nation after all.

The radio has moved on to advertisement. The tag line of a local beauty parlour says — ‘beautiful you, beautiful bangladesh’. Beautiful us, indeed.

I keep wondering about the time 25 years ago when an university dorm (Jagannath Hall) collapsed killing and injuring many students. That’s when we had one TV channel where there were appeal for blood. The whole city came together to respond. I remember New York after 9/11 or London after 7/7 and the people in those cities responded together. Today’s Dhaka is a lot more fragmented — just like the TV audience who has options of 80 channels. Volunteering has become certificate oriented. I doubt the city will even care.

The burn victims and the relatives looked lost. Some going out to the store to get water. Some desperately trying to use the hand fan to make the victims feel better. Its going to be 32 degree centigrade tonight. There are no fans for these victims. The atmosphere inside is not for the faint hearted for sure. We will, of course, let the resource crunched government deal with these problems, of course, forfeiting our collective responsibility. We will go on with our lives — attending the seminars, the cafes, the protibad shobhas. “ভাবী, যা ব্যস্ত !! আর বলবেন না !”

Or May be not.

Maybe we will respond differently. Maybe, those of us, who are in Dhaka, could stop for a couple of hours and take a trip down Dhaka Medical College (where we never go) and take that hand fan from that mother and let her rest for a bit while we wave. Or may be we will get those two bottles of water for the young man and spare his brother a little bit of relief for a bit. Or may be we can get those toys that the father promised his child. This won’t change any thing. But maybe, just maybe, this will at least make these people feel a little less lonely in this heartless, cruel town.