Bangladesh Boiler Rooms: On The Mundane Perils Of Our Global Economy

Inside a silver factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh
Inside a silver factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh
Md. Mehedi Hasan/ZUMA
Faisal Mahmud

DHAKA — Bangladesh is shifting from an agrarian economy to an industrial one, with an average annual industrial growth rate of 6.8% (as per the CIA World Factbook) over the past decade. While this steady progress has garnered praise and bagged export deals for its economy, one problem steals its glory: boiler rooms.

In the last four years, a total of 62 persons have died in 12 separate incidents of boiler explosions in Bangladesh. On Sept. 10, 2016, 24 people died in a single explosion at Tampaco Foils Ltd, a packaging factory in Tongi at the outskirts of the capital Dhaka. On July 3 last year, 13 people died after a boiler exploded at Multifabs Ltd, a textile factory in Gazipur district.

Considered as the heart of an industrial set up, these boilers run on natural gas and need periodic inspections to ensure safety standards. But for a total of 5,039 active boilers across the country, Bangladesh has just eight government-appointed inspectors.

These inspectors are tasked with several duties: approving new boilers and skilled boiler operators (to being one, training is needed, after which candidates must pass an exam conducted by the same inspectors), renewing old boilers by issuing fitness certificates and paper work to comply with the bureaucracy.

For issuing fitness certificates, the inspectors need to visit industrial units scattered across the country, individually. The field visits are made by the inspectors. The chief inspector and deputy chief inspectors usually don't go to the field but have to oversee them and go through the paperwork prepared after a filed visit.

But for a total of 5,039 active boilers, Bangladesh has just eight government appointed inspectors.

"In the last 48 hours, I needed to inspect and issue fitness certificates to 14 boilers," said Hanif Hossain, an inspector with the office of the chief inspector of boilers under the industries ministry of Bangladesh. "And all of them are in Barishal (a coastal town some 290 kilometers away from the capital)," said Hossain.

To inspect a single boiler properly, three to four hours are needed, Hossain said. Before that, the boiler needs to be closed down for at least 32-48 hours, depending on the type, size and age.

"There was immense pressure from the factories who all want their boilers to be inspected," said Hossain, "So I had to put in long hours." Despite that, he said he was only able to inspect four-five boilers thoroughly. For the rest, mostly new boilers, he didn't bother to go through the lengthy and tiresome process of hydraulic testing. He just went through their logbooks.

There are 5,039 active boilers in Bangladesh — Photo: Sm faysal

"I came back from Barishal at 1 am yesterday and now I am in the office by 9 pm," Hossain said, while we met in his office. "I have to finish the paperwork of all the boilers I checked," he said pointing towards a pile of files on his table.

A near impossible task

Hossain is usually given the task of inspecting around 85-90 boilers every month. The four other inspectors also have the same task. Apart from the five inspectors, there are two deputy chief inspectors and a chief inspector in the office.

"I was asked to inspect 87 boilers last month," said Pranab Kumar Sarkar, another inspector. "I could only properly inspect about half of those," he said. Out of the ones that Sarkar inspected, fitness certificates were issued against 44. He has not been able to complete the paperwork for the rest yet.

We are all severely overworked and it takes a toll on the tasks in our hands

As per the Boilers Act of 1923, the 94 year old Act which sets the guideline for inspection, an inspector is entitled to issue fitness certificate for six months. But before it is issued, the deputy chief inspectors have to scrutinize the report. The chief inspector has the capacity to issue fitness certificate for one year after going through the field report.

Most of the factories which are obliged to get a fitness certificate apply and pay for the one-year certificate. Thus, the reports prepared after the field visits have to be tabled with the chief inspector.

"Every year, I need to sign over 70,000 inspection reports," said Abdul Mannan, the incumbent chief inspector. "The reports are technical and reviewing them properly takes time. Nonetheless, I have to do it," he said.

Mannan, who has been the chief inspector for the past two-and-half years, said only a mechanical engineer can inspect the boiler properly. An inspector has to be familiar with new models of boilers and must read technical manuals, know how to conduct hydraulic test, boiler shield test and safety valve test.

"All the recruits in my office are mechanical engineers with at least an undergraduate degree. We are all severely overworked and it takes a toll on the tasks in our hands," he said.

A garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh — Photo: Alison Wright/ZUMA

He said the Boilers Act makes it mandatory to have an annual fitness check of every factory with a boiler across the country. When the factory owners submit the applications for annual fitness certificates, each inspector is allocated a certain number of boilers for inspection. Since the office is severely understaffed, the deputy chief inspectors and the chief inspector also visit the field now.

"I now have to go to factories, which make it quite impossible for me to complete the intensive paperwork," said Mannan.

Negligence and stalled measures

Deputy chief inspector Zia Ul Haque told The Wire that to make the boiler inspectors task less hectic, the office of the chief inspectors of boilers conduct training and exam for boiler operators. After passing the exams and getting the certification, these operators get appointed in a factory with a boiler room.

In 2016-17 fiscal, the office conducted exam and issued certificates to 1,041 boiler operators. In 2015-16, 2014-15 and 2013-14, the numbers were 997, 1,233 and 409 respectively.

"They are trained to keep a log book of the boiler. This has all the necessary information about the boiler. By looking at it, we are supposed to get an understanding of the boiler of that factory instantly," said Haque, "But unfortunately, we find many of those log books are being maintained on a piecemeal basis," he added.

A boiler operator of a textile factory said on the condition of anonymity that the owners, in many cases, force them to run the boiler for a prolonged period. "If the boiler is stopped, the production unit must also be halted. The profit-driven owners sometimes fail to understand the danger of an overworked boiler and force us to keep the boiler room operational for longer than it should be," said the operator.

Talking with The Wire, Siddiqur Rahman, president of Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) said, boilers represent a significant capital investment for any industry and the owners are aware of the danger of an overworked and improperly checked boiler. "No factory owner would put the boiler in risk by overworking it," said Rahman.

Improperly checked boilers are great risk for workers.

Rahman said the BGMEA asks all its member factories to get their boilers checked properly. "The association also held several awareness programs on how to use boilers properly," he said. "But the numbers of boiler inspectors make the whole practice of boiler checking a daunting task," he said.

A boiler operator of a textile factory said on the condition of anonymity that the owners, in many cases, force them to run the boiler for a prolonged period.

Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin, president of Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI) — the apex body of all the business in the country — said the government needs to immediately appoint more boiler inspectors. "Improperly checked boilers are great risk for workers," he said.

After the boiler explosion incident in Multifabs Ltd last year, two inter-ministry meetings were conducted to proceed on a stalled process of appointing over 200 new personnel, at least 100 of whom are boiler inspectors, and a proposal was finalized by the Ministry of Industries.

Mohammad Abdullah, the ministry's secretary told The Wire that the process of recruiting new personnel has been stalled. "But now, we have finished the paperwork for recruitment. We hope to issue a new circular for the positions in that office within the next few months," he said.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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