The BGMEA Tower mystique

Published : 1 May 2011, 03:12 PM
Updated : 1 May 2011, 03:12 PM

The recent saga of the BGMEA Tower is no less an epitome of our national narrative. Read the 15-storey building's brief and immodest history and you get an illuminating window into our judicial quandary, inefficient urban governance, incoherent environmental policies and, of course, the inexhaustible culture of influence-peddling.

Let's first get a grip on the building's jagged storyline. The Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) reportedly decided to build its headquarters in 1998 on Begunbari-Hatirjheel Canal at Karwan Bazar, within walking distance from the Sonargaon Hotel. Given that the low-lying land was a vital part of the city's natural drainage system, there have been environmental concerns from the very beginning.

BGMEA claimed that it had purchased the 0.66-acre land, with requisite government approval, from the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB). The reported selling price was Tk 51.7 million (a little over taka five crore or much less than one million US dollars), an absurdly low price for a sizable commercial plot at the centre of the city.

It was told that EPB bought 6.12 acres of land in the Hatirjheel area (to build a world trade centre) from the Bangladesh Railway in 2006. How could then EPB sell part of this land to BGMEA in 1998, much before it even acquired the land? The mystery further deepens when the land deed, submitted by BGMEA to the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (RAJUK) for approval, shows that BGMEA purchased the land in 2001. As if this anachronism was not enough, there were allegations against BGMEA of forgery in the land acquisition procedure. Some quarters even cried land-grabbing. Environmentalists complained of ecological disturbance, as the high-rise building would cut off the path of natural water flow.

Given BGMEA's enviable political clout, the project went on with aplomb and government patronage. The then-prime minister Sheikh Hasina laid the building's foundation stone on November 28, 1998 (if the abovementioned timeline is true, the land was not yet BGMEA property!). Less than eight years later, the then-incumbent prime minister Khaleda Zia inaugurated BGMEA Tower on October 6, 2008.

The High Court took on an activist role, following a newspaper report in October 2010 that BGMEA had violated various RAJUK construction rules as well as environmental laws (although in the news media the exact nature of these violations was never made clear). On February 22, 2011, the High Court asked five eminent lawyers to provide the court with their expert opinions on why the building should not be demolished (It is a mystery to me as to why the High Court did not also invite any environmentalist and city planner in the deliberation).

The High Court delivered a judgment on April 3 that the building should be torn down on the basis that it was built illegally on earth-filled land which itself was allegedly acquired through fraudulent means. Soon thereafter, BGMEA petitioned against the verdict. The Supreme Court weighed in and stayed the High Court ruling for six weeks.

What are we to make of this circus?

My first reaction was predictable: that BGMEA should have acted more transparently and set an example of good corporate governance, especially when the people are likely to hold the association in high esteem for their contribution to national economy. If the BGMEA leadership was thinking right, the task of creating its iconic headquarter could have also been a public relations campaign and a bold statement in environmental stewardship.

Yet, in linearly demonising BGMEA as a corrupt, power-mongering association that gets its way by hook or by crook is to lose sight of the web of interconnected problems that create a mazy legal case like the BGMEA's. Where was RAJUK, for instance, when the tower was being built? Why does this regulating body often work retroactively when the damage is already done? Alarmingly, the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) argued during the High Court deliberations that RAJUK had actually approved the project violating its own construction rules and regulations.

Since RAJUK was not the plaintiff in the case, we are left wondering as to why the Capital Development Authority didn't file a suit against BGMEA in the first place? Was there any RAJUK complicity in the illegal maneuvering of Hatirjheel? Interestingly, RAJUK had already exonerated BGMEA by accepting a fine of Tk 12 lakh from this resourceful association for not taking prior construction permission. If the cost of such flagrant violation is Tk 12 lakh, I find RAJUK more at fault than BGMEA. This is an absurdly low fine for a misdeed that would damage the city's ecology.
RAJUK's Palaeolithic accounting was worsened by the Department of Environment's failure to take a proactive position on the site.

Over the years, RAJUK, sadly, has earned the reputation of being the prime choice for an anthropological study of corruption in Bangladesh. Some time ago I went to RAJUK to get a residential building plan approved. I will not waste time explaining why it was not approved, except to say that I learned a range of RAJUK-styled jargon and body languages for bribery.

Curious about RAJUK's current modus operandi, I visited their website and this is what I found in the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section: Q: "How long does it take to approve design?" A: "It is done by the Authorised Section of RAJUK. General concern building construction committee approves the design within 45 days of submission. However, it varies with the frequency of their meeting." Another alarming one. Q: "Is there any law for approving a design after a building is built without prior permission?" A: "Yes, there is a law enacted since 1987. Under this law it is said that if a building is constructed without RAJUK's approval but following all the regulations and set backs of RAJUK then it is possible. But the owner will have to pay a 10 times increased fees along with a minimum Tk. 5,000 fine (it can be more)." These answers are sufficiently dubious to leave plenty of room for equally dubious transactions.

On the RAJUK website I also searched for information on the ongoing Begunbari-Hatirjheel development project. There is only one headline and nothing else: Integrated Development of Hatirjheel Area Including Begun Bari Khal Project. Since the site has become embroiled in legal wrangling, we would like to know how this RAJUK-led development project addresses the specific environmental concerns that have been raised, especially the preservation of natural drainage system through the site. It is time RAJUK started coming clean and becoming an urban entity with a broader urbanisation and environmental vision for the city, rather than a bastion of secret bureaucracy.

I also wanted to check how BGMEA sought to defend its controversial headquarters on their website, other than simply hiding behind bigwig lawyers in the court. Zip. There is nothing. How are we to interpret this silence? If the association followed the due process, why isn't it trying to defend itself in the court of public opinion? If BGMEA really meant its stated mission to "implement all legitimate rights and privileges of garment workers regarding Health, Welfare and Safety," one would hope that the association would also broaden this noble mission to nurturing the environment for the greater good of the city.

It is, however, not too difficult to empathise with BGMEA's need to have visibility by means of a central city location and architectural grandeur, given the readymade garments sector's crucial contribution to Bangladesh's economic mobility. Ideally, BGMEA's leadership should have approached the government for what would have been a legitimate cause: to create an urban identity of a sector that boosts the national growth curve. But BGMEA chose an unsavoury path. It is a leadership failure.

It seems like we, as a nation, need a bit of soul-searching. What would it take to groom leaders in all sectors who could rise above pettiness, quick bucks, and a fetishistic desire to get things done by seeking out the corrupt bureaucrat?

The BGMEA Tower story cautions us that we are far from being environmentally conscious. Bangladesh is a land-starved nation; therefore, every square inch of the country must matter. Revamping and empowering the Department of Environment as an autonomous regulatory entity (under the leadership of an environmental expert rather than a bureaucrat or a non-professional political appointee) should be a national priority. Conventional law-enforcement agencies are not adequately trained to deliver the kind of environmental safeguarding the country needs. Creating an independent environmental protection force, as an organ of the Department of Environment, would preemptively dispel a case like BGMEA's.

If the BGMEA Tower after all faces the wrecker's ball, let it be what economist Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction," that is, destruction is inevitable for new growth and new contemplation.
Dr. Adnan Morshed teaches in Washington, DC.