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Workplace woes

On December 7, 2005, a fire broke out at a garment factory in east Delhi, killing 13 people and critically injuring five more. Shocking? Yes. Unusual? No.

The factory was illegal and situated in a congested residential area.

The fire was caused by a short circuit in an electrical device used to remove stains from cloth. Sparks caused by the short circuit came into contact with some chemical thinner, and the subsequent fire spread through the three-storied building in a matter of seconds. Again, there’s nothing unusual about the way the fire started; most illegal factories use hazardous material without any safety systems in place.

The incident brings into focus the way illegal factories have been mushrooming inside residential colonies. The Supreme Court had ordered their closure by November 8, 2004. But although a year has passed, the Delhi government has done nothing to ensure that such factories are closed down.

Didn’t the residents complain?

Yes, they did. The Residents Welfare Association filed a public interest litigation (PIL) with the Supreme Court in 2000, pointing out the dangers of locating hazardous factories in residential areas.

These factories recycle plastic and manufacture PVC and aluminium cables. Some use crude processes to melt metals like aluminium and copper. Many store inflammable chemicals in godowns.

The health impact of all this on the local residents is enormous. They complain of respiratory disorders, persistent headaches and burning sensations in the eyes caused by exposure to carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, glass dust and smoke.

The factories operate in a clandestine manner. Most of them do not have a nameplate to indicate who the legal owner is. 

Instead of shutting down the illegal factories, the Delhi government continues to provide them the regular supply of water and electricity required to run their operations.

No safety norms were followed

Twenty fire tenders were rushed to the scene of the fire. But the narrow lanes in this crowded area stopped them from getting there quickly. Rescue work was also affected by a shortage of water.

The fire, which started at 11.15 am, was finally brought under control at 1.40 pm.

It seemed the building had narrow staircases and dingy rooms with little or no ventilation. None of the safety norms had been followed.

Some more chilling facts

There were 25 people working in the factory; only one managed to escape by jumping out of the top floor. All the bodies were charred beyond recognition. 

Why didn’t all the workers run for their lives?

The shocking truth is that nobody could run out of the burning building because it was locked from the outside. Local residents who helped with the rescue said they saw two large locks on the door connecting the staircase with the floor on which the manufacturing unit was situated. They had to break open the locks to save the few workers who were still alive.

It seems this was the usual practice to maintain discipline in the workplace, to stop thefts and to prevent the workers from leaving the factory early.

Is human life so cheap that no one bothers about safety in the workplace? It would seem so. Come to think of it, the worker who works the hardest to create a product that’s sold at a fair price in the market, gets the least benefit. The product is given a price tag, it goes to a glitzy shop to be displayed, and a glamorous model advertises it. The only reason why some products come cheap is because the cost of maintaining the factory where it is made, and the workers who put the product together, is extremely low.

The mannequins that wear the garments from the cloth factory look pretty; the sight of the workers in the badly burnt factory on that ill-fated day was ghastly.

-- Suroopa Mukherjee

December 2005

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