Who is responsible for the death of 17 people at a factory blaze in Delhi’s Bawana? The question has turned into a major political row between the Aam Aadmi Party, which governs Delhi, and the BJP, which rules its municipality, especially as likely bypolls loom in a number of Assembly seats in the national capital.
A predictable blame game has ensued, made easier with Delhi’s tortured division of power between the state government and the Centre. A circumspect BJP mayor was even purportedly caught on camera telling her aides that the factory’s licence was with them, and hence they should not say anything on the issue. The North Delhi Municipal Corporation Mayor has since claimed the video was fake.
#WATCH: In the aftermath of Bawana factory fire, BJP leader & North Delhi Municipal Corporation Mayor Preeti Aggarwal caught on cam telling her aide, 'iss factory ki licensing hamare paas hai isliye hum kuch nahi bol sakte.' The incident has claimed 17 lives. #Delhi pic.twitter.com/zXfVjNADl2— ANI (@ANI) January 21, 2018
The answer, however, is simple: Every authority concerned failed the 17 labourers, they died because business owners blatantly flout rules, and a willfully blind administration allows it.
Factory was a deathtrap
The site of Saturday’s horror was F-83, in Bawana’s Sector 5. According to reports, the building, a house that doubled up as a manufacturing unit, was built on a 120-yard plot with two entrances, one of which was locked. The windows in the building were welded shut.
For the labourers trapped in the burning building, the only other option to escape was jumping off a first-floor balcony and a terrace, and possibly landing in the flames on the ground floor.
According to a report, fire officials later found two non-functional fire extinguishers and a hydrant that was not connected to any water source.
The factory where the fire started. Photo: PTI
A report in The Indian Express talks of how hours before the disaster, three women had walked out of the factory because of its unsafe working conditions. While the factory dealt with firecrackers, the workers had not been provided gloves or masks, and the gunpowder in the air would make it difficult for them to breathe.
Business establishment owners have been known to flout safety norms, and the government does not care to enforce them till disaster strikes.
Less than a month ago, a Hindustan Times report had quoted a fire official as saying: “Hauz Khas Village has 70-80 restaurants and most of them accommodate over 50 people (the minimum seating capacity to require a no objection certificate), but only four of them have fire NOCs. The number of such establishments is nearly the same in Khan Market. The situation is better in Connaught Place where 114 restaurants and pubs have NOCs.”
If officials are aware of such rule-breaking, why no is action taken against the establishments? Factories such as the one in Bawana employ disadvantaged people, too dependent on their salaries to ask questions about workplace safety. The administration, thus, has a greater responsibility to ensure that they are not taken advantage of.
In this case, the factory was clearly violating all workplace safety norms and fire regulations, but no one seems to have noticed or cared.
Licence trail murky
The owner of the factory, Manoj Jain, has been arrested, and probe in the matter handed over to the crime branch. Jain had been operating the factory since January 1.
According to the police, the owner had procured a licence for a plastic factory, but was running a firecracker storage unit instead. However, this owner was not Jain, but his friend Vijay Goel. Goel had rented his factory to Jain, who started his firecracker unit without obtaining a fresh licence.
A report states that the actual owner of the building is a woman, from whom Goel rented the premises.
The firecracker factory may not be the only one running illegally in the area, reports claim. That fact that they are unregistered with the government also means that these factories do not have to confirm to any labour laws, enabling them to exploit workers further.
Why are such factories operating without a check? Part of the reason is that the BJP and the AAP are yet to decide whose job it is to regulate them.
According to BJP leader and MP Meenakshi Lekhi, the site of the fire is an industrial area maintained by the Delhi State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation (DSIIDC), which is the responsibility of the Delhi government. The AAP and the DSIIDC, meanwhile, claim that the power to stop illegal factories rests with the Delhi municipal corporation.
This is not the first time that the BJP and the AAP, when called upon to respond to a crisis, have pointed fingers at each other. In November, while Delhi was choking on toxic air, the state government and the Centre, along with Punjab and Haryana, were busy trying to decide who was more to blame for the situation.
In the Bawana case, neither the state nor the civic body can escape culpability. The 17 workers died because for the factory owner, a quick buck was more important than possible danger to their lives, and the administration was facilitating him by its apathy.
The incident comes less than a month after 14 people lost their lives in the Kamala Mills fire in Mumbai, another avoidable tragedy caused by ignoring norms. It is high time business owners stop treating safety regulations as unnecessary hassle, and the administration wakes up to its duty. We cannot allow human lives to be lost to organised negligence.