Last Monday, Satyendar, Arvind and Chandan, all migrant workers from Bihar, were on a night shift when a purported short circuit in electrical fittings triggered a fire in their factory in southwest Delhi. They tried to flee, but the only exit to the single-storey structure was locked, their colleagues later told HT.
HT FILE PHOTOA series of tragedies at industrial units in Delhi have failed to stir the conscience of factory owners.When fire-fighters entered the factory, they found the trio asphyxiated and lying unconscious next to the factory gate. Only Chandan survived.
The circumstances leading to Monday’s blaze were grimly similar to four other major factory fires that have claimed two dozen lives in the last four months in Delhi. Those killed were migrant labourers working in the poorly provisioned factories which had little in the name of structural or fire safety. Some of these units were outright illegal and ran without basic trade licences. To make matters worse, fire exits were allegedly blocked in at least two such units when the workers were trapped in the burning, smoke-filled buildings.
Following a January 20 blaze in a firecracker unit in Bawana that killed 17 workers, making it one of the biggest industrial tragedies in recent years, authorities in Delhi had promised action ranging from mandatory licence checks to safety inspections. Yet, most of these death traps still operate with impunity. The series of tragedies have clearly failed to stir the conscience of the factory owners who continue to put their profits before workers’ safety.
For any conscientious community, such deaths should be a wake-up call. A fire that swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York 107-yearsago, killing 146 people, brought big reforms in industrial regulation and work conditions. The causes and handling of the fire more than a century ago were uncannily similar to what we witness in Delhi even today.
The New York factory was a garment unit employing at least 500 workers, mostly young Italian and Jewish immigrants. On March 25, 1911, a fire fuelled by scraps of stored material spread to the upper floors of the factory. As the workers rushed to escape, they found that the fire doors had been locked to keep them from leaving the building “with stolen goods”, the New York Times recalled in an article in 1986.
As most of them scrambled to the sole fire escape, it collapsed under their weight. The fire brigade’s ladders couldn’t reach the burning floors. More than 50 burned to death on the factory floor, 19 fell into the lift-shaft, at least 20 died when the overburdened fire escape broke free of the building and 53 jumped or fell from the windows, the Economist reported.
In June 1911, the New York State Legislature created a Factory Investigating Commission, which sent inspectors into tenements, factories and workshops of the time. Shaken by their reports, the commission passed 36 laws in three years, reforming everything from fire regulations to working hours and labour laws.
Delhi doesn’t lack rules. But they are so blatantly violated that its factories and the labour conditions still resemble those prevailing in pre-1911 New York. It is not uncommon for a factory owner here to obtain a licence for a certain trade and manufacture something else, often far more hazardous. The Bawana factory, for instance, was registered as a plastic-manufacturing unit but was used to package firecrackers illegally.
The building code stipulates that all factories have access roads, open space on all sides, alternative escape routes, smoke alarms, extinguishers, hydrants and hose reels. But any unit working out of a covered area of less than 250-sq-metre on all floors is exempt from seeking a fire safety certificate. Officials say installing firefighting apparatus raises operational costs and is time-consuming. Clearly, life is cheaper.
Much of Delhi’s industrial enterprises are anyway running from illegal spaces, tightly packed unauthorised colonies or buildings approved for residential use, which is rented out cheap and lack the layout and power load to support factory operation.
In most of the factory fires this year, the violation involved was obvious and yet the authorities chose to do nothing about it. Blame games continued till the next fire claimed a few more lives. That’s been Delhi’s “standard operating procedure” for fighting fire.