Rana at BRAC, Visitor Communications, has been really great in arranging a few field visits for me. I was pretty disappointed the whole work thing did not pan out, and I suspect he is going above and beyond to allow me the exploration I wanted to do here in Bangladesh.
Rana suggested this first trip to Manikganj to get an understanding of the breadth of activities BRAC engages in, and how they interlink. The focus for this trip was to get an overview of BRAC’s programs in Microfinance, Health, Education and Social Enterprises. I was pumped heading off, really keen to get out of Gulshan and get to see the real Bangladesh. I was not disappointed.
I set off with a driver and interpreter and we headed for Manikgonj, which is about 65km NW of Dhaka – an hour’s journey or less in western time, but a 3-hour journey in Bangladeshi time. The roads are good! It was the traffic …. lots and lots and lots of traffic. Toronto is nothing in comparison.
As we snaked our way out of Dhaka, we got to a neighbourhood called Mirpur. There were teems and teems of young men and women (mostly women actually), all heading in one direction. Literally thousands I kid you not. Some were clambering into little trucks with cage-like walls, others just walked, all heading in the same direction. I asked what was up … all these young people were headed to the many garment factories scattered around the area. The cage-like trucks were run by the out of the way garment factories and picked up their workers on the main thoroughfare.
None of the buildings had any indications that they were garment factories, but if you looked closer, you saw line-ups of people outside certain buildings, being carded before being allowed in. The sheer volume of people going into the one building, boggled my mind.
Litton the driver and Nadim the interpreter and I got into a discussion about the garment industry. Their take is the garment industry is a good thing. It provides good employment for women, Allows them to earn their own money that they get to spend as they see fit. The household tends to benefit if the women earns money – kids are clean, go to school, eat well, are more healthy, electricity is usually hooked up and the girls tend to stay longer at school. They do not earn a lot according to western standards, but it is enough to give them a regular income and get the next generation a chance to break the poverty cycle.
They said most employers have safe buildings with relatively good conditions, some places even had free daycare. There are of course the employers who don’t, like the owner of the Rana Plaza building that collapsed April 2013. They made an interesting comment, it seems the building owner had applied for and received approval (which included an engineer report) from the local government, to build those extra floors which lead to the ultimate collapse of the building. So it is not just the building owners and employers.
We continued on our journey, going through Savar where the Rana Plaza was located. We could see the boarded up empty lot from the road, literally a pile of gnarled concrete and rebar – it does not bear thinking about, where over 1000 lives were lost. It looked like there was a garment factory next door, I can only imagine the horror for those people. CRP (Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed) is a sister rehab centre to SIRC in Nepal and they were heavily involved in the rescue and recovery effort, and now are delivering vocational training for many of the survivors. Both Litton and Nadim spoke highly of CRP, it’s a centre many Bangladeshi are proud of.
Postscript. I have had a few discussions with this Canadian-Bangladeshi journalist and came across one of her articles describing the role CRP played in the Rana Plaza disaster, and generally the kinds of rehabilitation it provides – impressive!
Our journey slowly left the urban chaos and we hit scores and scores of farmers, working in the hot and scorched fields, harvesting what they could before the monsoon rains start their deluge in the next week or so. It’s been the driest May in many years, and the hottest apparently, so everyone is looking forward to monsoon – relief from the heat and water for the fields. Just before the town of Manikganj, we find ourselves at the BRAC office and turn in off the road.