Laws Need to Be Updated to Handle Man-Made Disasters

Laws need to be updated to handle man-made disasters Published : Monday, 19 August 2013 Man-made disasters are attributable to conditions resulting from human conduct such as act of gross negligence, gross inaction or serious errors. Unlike natural disasters, preventive and regulatory measures assume greater importance in the case of man-made disasters, writes M S Siddiqui

The whole nation has been after Rana due to his irresponsible act of constructing a ‘defective’ building with permission from the Savar municipality and allowing owners to run their garment factories there, despite cracks in the building, just with a ‘certificate’ from the Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) that the building is safe. The UNO has been ‘transferred’ and the municipality chairman has been suspended. The nation is now demanding capital punishment to Rana for such a manmade disaster.

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The architect, contractor and engineer engaged by the builder are not yet considered responsible for the accident and the office of the Chief Inspector of Shop and Establishment is still enjoying immunity despite their negligence to prevent the disaster. They got the immunity citing the excuse of manpower shortage. Man-made disasters are attributable to conditions resulting from human conduct such as acts of gross negligence, gross inaction or serious errors. Unlike natural disasters, preventive and regulatory measures assume greater importance in the case of man-made disasters.

Periodical inspections, even when they are provided for in the rule book, are seldom done with the requisite thoroughness. The crucial defects and potential sources of danger noticed remain unaddressed and the authorities concerned fail to take punitive action against the responsible persons. The law should be updated to provide speedy and adequate redress to the victims. It is also felt that the preventive aspect is being neglected, the regulatory mechanism is clearly absent and the law is too lenient towards those violating the safety regulations or otherwise contributing to the disasters.

Common people are innocent victims of manmade disasters like (i) fire incidents, (ii) building collapses, (iii) stampedes at public places and (iv) industrial disasters viz. explosions, escape of noxious fumes and gases, mishaps in underground mines, etc. , and (v) exposure to radioactive waste. Building collapses occur on account of weak foundations not suited to the conditions of soil and water table, vulnerability to water-logging, faulty structural design, weak beams and poor quality of construction.

Non-observance of earthquake resistance standards in vulnerable areas is another cause. Sufficient care is not taken while granting permissions or doing inspection at the construction stage. The authorities like the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (Rajuk), the inspector of shop and establishment, fire service authority, the local government and government offices seldom exercise powers vested in them to demolish such buildings. The system of communication with superior officers is poor and this aggravates the situation.

Industrial disasters occur because of indifference on the part of the owner/manager in handling safety systems like adequate fire control equipment on the premises and emergency evacuation plans. The storage of combustible materials without even enclosing them with fire-proof walls/partition aggravates the problem. The escape of poisonous gases has a terrible impact on the safety and health of those living in the vicinity. There is no periodic inspection by the technical personnel of the government/local bodies at the time of and after issuing/renewing licences and certificates.

Fire incidents are mostly caused by electric short-circuits compounded by the lack of (a) requisite obstruction-free exit points, (b) emergency lights and sign posts (c) sound system to relay the message, (d) space constraints and effective operation of firefighting vehicles and non-availability of water for combating fire, (e) lack of smoke detectors, fire alarm, fire extinguishers and fire drills let the fire take its own course.

Fire extinguishers are seldom found at such places. Even if firefighting kits and extinguishers exist, people are not aware about how to use/operate them in case of emergency. Adequate training is not imparted to the staff and occupants. The people congregate in large numbers in commercial complexes such as cinema halls, multiplexes, function halls, shopping malls, hotels, educational institutions, auditoriums and multistoreyed residential complexes.

But at the time of granting the building permission or giving the licence for occupation or renewal of it, the engineering staff, the fire service personnel and the electrical inspectors do not take the necessary care and ensure that the building is structurally sound and safe, that adequate exit points free from obstructions do exist for safe passage in case of emergency, that the sound and warning systems are functional, proper equipment is in place to prevent and control the fire, combustible materials and inflammable debris are not kept in the building close to the places of a potential fire outbreak, the electrical installations and connections including wiring are not exposed to the risk of short-circuit. The accountability is a key factor in enforcement of laws for prevention and control of manmade disasters.

The principle of accountability applies both to officials at the regulatory department as well as those in charge of management or entrusted with the duties related to safety measures. Gross dereliction of duties on the part of the officials and casual and careless attitude towards duties should be deemed as punishable offences. For instance, if an unauthorised construction goes on with the full knowledge of officials or such a construction does not escape the notice of the officials, if the building plans are approved or no-objection certificates (NOCs) are issued without going through mandatory inspection and without verifying material particulars, the officials should be punished for a specified offence.

Palpable negligence in doing duties should not be overlooked under the appropriate law. It is difficult to distinguish between such acts of gross dereliction or utter indifference and corrupt motives. Victims of man-made disasters: Of course, rescue and relief measures are common in both natural and man-made disasters. On account of the human element involved in triggering the man-made disasters, the victims can have recourse to civil and public law for remedies and those responsible for culpable negligence may also be liable for criminal action under the provisions of Penal Code or various special laws to which reference has been made hereinafter.

Compensation can be claimed in a Civil Court for the damage/injury caused by acts of negligence, although there is no tort law in Bangladesh. Negligence is a distinct head of tort. The general principle behind the tort of negligence is that “you must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you could reasonably foresee would likely endanger your neighbour. ” There are three criteria for imposition of a duty to take care – ability of damage, proximity of relationship between the parties and the reasonableness. It is of utmost importance that inspection of high-rise buildings – both commercial and residential, including hospitals and hotels, should be done periodically.

It is needless to emphasise that the inspection personnel should have necessary expertise and experience. It would be ideal instead of piecemeal inspections by Civil/Structural Engineers, Electrical Inspectors and Fire Service officers, the inspection teams consisting of officials from all these disciplines should be in their sufficient number to inspect the buildings, take stock of safety measures, deficiencies and safety standard violations and take necessary steps firstly to have the defects rectified or hazards removed and secondly to initiate action for prosecution and/or other measures to enforce compliance with safety standards and regulations.

The persons responsible for management and supervision of buildings and the names and particulars of the lessees should be furnished in the self-assessment report which should be filed annually. Any false declaration filed should be a punishable offence. However, for buildings such as cine halls, theatres or factories for which licences have to be renewed annually or periodically, this report may be waived in as much as all the relevant particulars should necessarily be given in the application form. Such a self-assessment report should have the statutory backing; maybe, it can be incorporated into the municipal law. In a report of the Law Commission of India, the Commission pointed out that “breach of statutory duties which gives rise to liability analogous to torts is treated as a group of torts which are sui generis i. e. a class in itself. ” After citing the dictum of Lord Wright in 1949 AC 155, the Commission aptly said: “It would be seen that whether the breach is of a statutory duty or of a common law duty, there is a common legal action for damages. The source of obligation or the duty is, no doubt, different. If there is a breach of a statutory duty, it may be presumed that there is negligence. In the case of a common law duty, the duty itself has to be established before its violation is proved giving rise to a claim for damages. It follows, therefore, whether there is a breach of statutory duty or not, there may be common law action for negligence. ”

Representations have been made to the government that there should be an effective law to deal with man-made disasters and provide adequate and speedy remedies to the victims and their relatives. Lack of coordination among various regulatory agencies of the government and quick response from those agencies for granting permissions to erect temporary, detachable structures is one of the causes for erecting such structures without seeking permission. The Savar area is under the jurisdiction of RAJUK but Savar Municipality continued to issue ‘permission’ for construction of buildings etc. Rana ‘duly took permission’ from the municipality. More importantly, apathy, collusion, perfunctory inspection, lack of follow-up action due to corruption – all these have marred the system in violation of law of the land.

Moreover, no one is made accountable and the officials in charge have a feeling of impunity and immunity. In this background, the problems associated with man-made disasters should be approached from different angles and practicable solutions are to be found. The areas in which the law needs to be amended or refined are to be identified. Attention should be paid to three aspects: (i) preventive measures, (ii) punitive aspects, and (iii) remedial measures i. e. , relief including compensation and rehabilitation. These should come under a strict legal framework to make all concerned, including the regulators, within the government accountability. The writer is pursuing PhD with the Open University, Malaysia. [email protected] com

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