By DELWAR HUSSAIN
The collapse of the Rana Plaza in the suburbs of Bangladesh’s capital city on 24 April 2013 did not just leave a trail of devastation for all the thousands of workers involved and their families, something which will be felt for years to come. But in the rubble of the eight-storey Dhaka building that housed factories making clothes for brands such as Benetton, Mango, Matalan, Monsoon, Primark and Walmart, other painful reminders were also exposed. Many of them, alas, we have known for a long time and probably cease to shock us any longer. They include further examples of the global network of greed which connects ordinary shoppers in “first world” countries to multinational companies and in turn to local elites in “third world” cities.
Many accounts of utter inhuman, slave-like conditions have been unearthed in which often poor, exploited women live and work to feed the desires of wealthy, gluttonous metropolises. Of the repressive political-business-crime nexus which ensures labourers have no rights, welfare or security. Of the absolute disregard for workers and the vilification of trade unions by consecutive government bureaucrats/factory owners, who are usually the same individuals. Of the sheer ineptitude of government bureaucracies to maintain laws and regulations which may protect employees.
All this, against the backdrop of the worst industrial disaster in Bangladesh’s short history where over a 1,000 people were killed and 2,500 injured, makes a certain question even more insistent. Is there no alternative to the particular path of economic and social development that the country seems to have chosen for itself – an alternative that places the respect of life at its core, and which denies the Rana Plaza any claim to be a foreshadow of its future?
The developmental trajectory post-colonial states followed in the mid-20th century is writ small on the Khonighat Limestone Mining Project. Set up in 1965 by the then Pakistani government (East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971), its aim was not simply to furnish the newly independent country with limestone, though this was of course one of its core functions. It was at the centre of a much larger, utopian goal that constituted a project of a different order. Migrant workers who came to live and work in the Project in the mid-1960s were to be part of the modern Pakistani industrial workforce and more importantly, enlightened citizens of the new Pakistani state. This rhetoric was not simply top-down state and Project management gobbledegook. Workers and their families at all levels of the industry truly believed in the vision. It is not difficult to see why. Almost immediately after it was established, the physical, social and personal worlds of those who came to live and work here began to ring with the dizzying sounds of change. All of it was unprecedented in scale.
Modernisation, the theory and practice, dictated that once peasants moved from the field to the factory, these hitherto “backward” people would be propelled into “civilisation” and share in the prosperity of the “developed” world. The idea was that the state was at the centre of capitalist development programmes, preoccupied as it was with national progress, or in other words, the transformation of the whole. Therefore, state-led development concentrated upon spectacular public works. Around the world, entire new cities were carved out: Brasilia (Brazil), Islamabad (Pakistan) and Chandigarh (India). More commonly, it involved building infrastructure (roads, bridges), developing large-scale power projects (hydroelectricity dams, power stations), constructing industries (manufacturing, refineries, factories) and civic institutions (courts, hospitals, schools, universities, libraries, parliaments). Generally this was concentrated in urban centres; but “unknown”, so-called “peripheral” places, such as the region where Khonighat is located, were also targeted. These spaces were to be instantiations of modernity, exemplars of what was to come. Their functions were to act as transformers, changing everything around them in the most remote of locations and amongst the most diverse range of people.
In Khonighat, quarters were constructed besides the Bangladesh-India border to house Project employees. The senior officers’ colony, Grade 1 – accountants, doctors, engineers – consisted of bungalows with a large, covered veranda, overlooking a garden at the front. Over time, fruit trees and flowering bushes were grown. The view from the main windows was of the large rectangular lawn around which the township was built. Inside, there were two or three spacious rooms, a small kitchen and a bathroom. Officers were able to accommodate their families and a maid comfortably. The bungalows had locally generated electricity and indoor plumbing, including western toilet and flush. The homes for the intermediate staff – administrators, teachers, nurses – were built along a grid system and were closer together. They also had electricity, plumbing and draping bougainvillea bushes.
The houses for the lowest grade and the majority of employees – labourers, explosives experts, radio/crane operators, security, foremen, contract workers, carpenters – built on the inside fringes of the Project perimeters, were made out of tin. The barrack-like blocks were built to accommodate large numbers of working men. They would share squat toilets and a well for water but they too had electricity. There were no ethnic or religious enclaves. People of different backgrounds had to live with one another. Roads and communication links were established. A school was built, as was a clinic, water supply, graveyard, post office, bank, guest house and a bazaar. Though secularism was one of its underpinning ideologies, a mosque was constructed as was a Hindu temple.
But global forces had a role to play in its ruin too. With the state heavily indebted to foreign aid, the World Bank and the IMF forced Bangladesh’s democratic and military rulers to liberalise the country’s economy and to privatise or close down public-sector industries. The project of modernisation and the worker’s utopia in Khonighat lasted around thirty years. The majority of the official staff were transferred out of the area. Some fifty or so middle-ranking clerks, administrators, teachers and their families remained as there were no positions for them to fill elsewhere. Whilst some of the infrastructure and machinery were dismantled and/or sold off, most remains where they were left, on the last day of operations.
This story of abjection is not consistent, however. These days the cross-border coal trade between Bangladesh and India is monopolised by men who were formerly limestone labourers at the bottom of the Project hierarchy. Many were discarded early in the Project’s decline, their fate no longer its concern. Several of these men have worked up from the very bottom and have amassed huge wealth and respect. Ex-Project workers say that unlike what previously existed here, the current economic dispensation is based on selfishness, market morality and greed rather than on workers’ wellbeing or national development. No infrastructure, let alone schools or health centres have been built since the Project closed down. They point to the thousands upon thousands of migrant labourers who flock to the border to work in the coal trade. They have no legal protections, healthcare, civic amenities or trade-union rights. These were examples of principles that existed in the Project, but with the neoliberal reordering, have now disappeared.
It is not just labour in the cross-border economy that is required to be cheap, exploitable and expendable. For the thousands upon thousands of migrants who flock to Dhaka’s garment industry every month, life is not so different. Fear over the present and future pervades their existence too. These emanate from the conditions in which they work, the ever-present dangers of fires, and building collapse as well as the precarious nature of their job (they could be sacked any day). Many of the female garment-workers I have spoken to say all they want is that the factories they work for to provide them and their families with somewhere to live, daycare services for their children and to be paid on time. It is too easy to say that we need to learn from the past. It is quite another thing to actually do so.