Adhering to rules and regulations has always been a problem in Bangladesh. Traffic laws, transportation laws, tenancy laws — name whichever law or regulation you want, none of them are properly maintained nor enforced. Some regulations have not even been updated in a very long time. Or, a scenario that is almost unique to us, by the time a revised and updated regulation comes into effect, it becomes inept relative to the need.
One such case is the Bangladesh National Building Code or BNBC, which regulates the standard for constructing properties in the country. While the first BNBC was conceived way back in 1993, it did not come into effect until 2006. By that time, the regulations were in need of a revision.
The BNBC sets the precedence for how every property in Bangladesh — be it residential, commercial or industrial — will be constructed. All developers must conform to the code and get approval from the concerned regulatory authority before moving forward with construction. This ensures that the building in question maintains at least a minimum standard and is not susceptible to disasters.
With a crucial aspect such as this, every delay in enactment or enforcement can mean losing precious lives. While enforcement is undoubtedly a major concern, the delay in authorization forces people and their properties to be at risk as many unethical developers would have more leeway to cut corners and minimize cost whenever possible. And as it stands, such leeway cannot be afforded for the safety of the people of the country.
It took the first national building code over 12 years to be enacted, but even that may have been further delayed if not for a number of property-related incidents prior to notification of the gazette. Collapses and engulfment of several building, especially the building collapse of April 2005 and factory fire in Chittagong of February 2006, had prompted urgent action. The view was, even if delayed, the enforcement of these codes would make upcoming buildings more durable and less prone to disasters.
However, that was not the case. Even after the passing of the BNBC 2006, experts immediately called for revisions that they felt were imperative for the safety of the buildings. Further disasters in the coming years only demonstrated the outdatedness of the codes and how much rectification was necessary. After all, the real estate and housing sector of Bangladesh went through massive changes in the 12 years it took for the building codes to pass. Construction became developer-centric and scarcity of land led to construction of more and more high-rise buildings — not to mention that Bangladesh had been increasingly becoming involved in the global garments market, hence, construction of more industrial buildings — aspects the codes failed to address.
As a result, the growing real estate sector of that time neglected vital aspects such as fire safety measures, usage of more effective material and more efficient construction techniques. And now, we are back in the same position we were 14 years ago as an amendment of the 2006 codes.
Work on the updated version of BNBC began in 2011, five years after the original was passed. But again, the work was slow and the first draft was not ready until 2015. The updated codes tried to address the issues the previous ones failed with improved and cost efficient retrofitting techniques, GIS-based contingency plans, energy efficiency and sustainability, and steel-concrete composite structural members among many other things. Aside from the technical specifications, the BNBC also defined different types of engineers and their roles in design and construction of structures — something that, up until then, was omitted anywhere in the regulation.
Another important proposal was the separation of regulatory and monitoring body of building construction — which was solely managed by Rajuk. However, while most of the proposals were considered as time-appropriate and necessary, the governing body failed to come into consensus which led to another unnecessary delay. But unlike before, the draft of the latest BNBC was updated along the way with inclusion of codes such as increasing the column width of buildings to better safeguard against earthquakes and revising the load capacity.
The new version, termed BNBC 2017, was finally approved and sent for notification last September, but many are already calling for further revisions — and understandably so. The final draft of BNBC 2006, under the purview of then recent fire-related incidents, focused heavily on fire-safety measures in buildings. Between 2004 and 2019, there have been over 90,000 fire incidents in the country — killing over 2,000 people. As such, the need for stronger fire-safety measures was necessary.
But according to the Fire Consultants Association of Bangladesh, the measures in the updated codes are, in fact, weaker than the previous codes. As per the last draft, hotels and hospitals that are 10 stories or below will not require a proper fire protection plan while even hazardous factories, if only one-storied, would not even require an automatic fire alarm. It is the belief of the association that this decision was made due to increased pressure from factory and garments owners.
It should be mentioned that the Home Ministry had suspended the Fire Fighting Rules of 2014 after just one year and ordered people concerned to revise them in a way that is more incorporating to the recommendations made by the business community. On the other side, the apparel sector has also called for several changes to the code so to avoid “costly western prescriptions.”
In this current landscape, immediate revision as well as implementation of building codes is necessary if the goal is to ensure structural safety. Regardless of the change, if the regulations are not enacted immediately, the result is fruitless as they become obsolete. Bangladesh is vulnerable to many natural disasters and further room for human error can be catastrophic for the citizens.
It took the first BNBC over 12 years and the updated one eight years from their first inception to be notified. The need for streamlining this and reducing the time necessary to go from draft to notification is immense because without the proper laws or regulations in place, enforcement is a far away dream.