IN ANY other situation it would have been considered contempt of court, but common rules don’t apply to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. An organisation that boasts such a large number of lawmakers amongst its membership is unlikely to worry too much about court orders. Their actions (or rather inaction), certainly don’t suggest they are shivering with fear.
It was Sunday the 12th March 2017, when the Supreme Court of Bangladesh decided enough was enough. The court was remarkably candid in its observations and gave six months time to Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association to demolish its building constructed illegally in Dhaka’s Begunbari canal and Hatirjheel Lake. Today the 11th August 2017, five months are up. So far not a brick has been touched. But that’s only part of the story. Dhaka’s masterplan clearly prohibits any changes to the Begunbari canal. The natural waterbody, one of many that once dotted Dhaka city, was designated a flood flow zone, to prevent seasonal accumulation of water, and deal with the torrential monsoon rains.
Remarkably, the fifteen story building, an obelisk rising from the now famous Hatirjheel lake, was something none of the regulatory bodies, entrusted with the prevention of such illegal acts, seemed to have noticed. The invisibility of this mammoth structure becomes even more difficult to digest, when one realises that two sitting prime ministers, from the two leading political parties, have officiated the setting up, and the launch of the building. The media headlines, the scrolls, the prime time news, must also have been invisible.
The current prime minister takes justifiable pride in the gleaming Hatirjheel complex. Bright lights on the fancy bridges light up Dhaka’s night sky. Villagers come over to see the glittering reflections in the water. Lovers hold hands in the generous pathways in an overcrowded city, where privacy is rare. Tired old trains chug along the archaic train line that snakes through the middle. Hawkers of all descriptions do brisk trade in what has become an attraction for Dhakaites and their visitors. Given the city’s seven km/hr average driving speed, the short cut to the tri-state regions of Gulshan, Baridhara and Banani where wealthy Bangladeshis, westerners and diplomats reside, is also a welcome respite.
Being an attraction for the public was not the primary intention of the multimillion-taka project. The raison d’etre for the storm drainage system, which stretches all the way from VIP Road (aka Kazi Nazrul Islam Road) to the home of Bangladesh Television at Rampura and beyond, was to create an outlet for accumulated water from Paribagh, Karwan Bazar and Eskaton.
Free flow of water is not what dams are designed for. The dam built in order to make way for the fifteen-storied sparkling invisible building, neatly cuts off these regions from the planned outlets. This presumably is the sort of indiscretion that the illustrious mayor of Dhaka North refers to when he moans about the ‘illegal constructions blocking waterways’ that are the bane of his life. That he was president of BGMEA while much of this was going on, and continues to be an influential member of this body, is something he has conveniently forgotten. In the vengeful political climate we live in, where a Facebook comment can land you in jail, no one dares to remind him.
BGMEA’s Houdini act doesn’t restrict itself to making fifteen storied buildings disappear. It also builds time machines which allow it to purchase the ‘land’ from the Export Promotion Bureau five years before EPB itself became the owner in 2006. That too, was something that RAJUK (Capital Development Authority) failed to see. The single notice that RAJUK did serve on the BGMEA building in the decade that the building has been in existence perhaps happened when the magician was on a tea break.
Earlier, in 2011, the Bangladesh High Court had decreed that the land had been illegally obtained, the building had been erected without proper approvals and the location threatened a network of lakes that form the natural drainage system of the capital. The High Court called the building ‘a scam of abysmal proportions’ and had ordered it demolished within 90 days.
While amicus curie (friend of court) Advocate Manzil Murshid had felt the latest Supreme Court ruling would restore people’s confidence in the rule of law, the BGMEA’s ability to ignore the Supreme Court directive with such ease, will hardly convince anyone that ‘nobody is above the law’.
The good looking TV anchor turned mayor, whose presidency of the BGMEA was smack in the middle of this illegal occupation of the lake, is the chairman of a leading conglomerate of ready made garments as well as a top software exporting company in Bangladesh. The conglomerate employs over 12,000 individuals in the textile and garments sector and is also involved in real estate, IT, a power generation company that directly contributes to the national grid and a distribution company that represents multiple foreign television channels. The Group also has an independent TV Channel.
Huq is the former president of several apex bodies including the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Federation of the Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Independent Power Producers Association. His candidacy for mayor of Dhaka North was blessed by no other than the prime minister and he often casually slips into conversations, that he has access to the highest seat of power. The fact that his brother is the chief of staff of the army doesn’t hurt. He clearly is a powerful man.
The mayor’s ‘can do’ attitude and his preparedness to take on the powerful is admired by some and reviled by others. The campaign to remove 20,000 illegal billboards as part of a cleanup project was a welcome move. We are no strangers to political spin and the public knows too well the difference between the rhetoric and the reality. The replacement of the billboards by campaign adverts by the ruling political party which now litter the city landscape, does dent Huq’s reputation, but it is when he takes the moral high ground and speaks out from his pulpit against those who illegally occupy the water bodies of the city, that the hypocrisy galls.
Recent rulings by the Supreme Court have given new hope to the people by speaking truth to power. Here too, ‘justice must be seen to be done’, and those cosying up to absolute power would do well to remember that the fall could be equally hard.
Author’s note: Since this article was written, mayor Annisul Huq was hospitalised in London for cerebral vasculitis. While he is said to be out of danger, I share his family’s concern and wish him full recovery.
Shahidul Alam is a photographer, writer and curator.