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Charred lives: Fire in Delhi’s Mundka exposes criminal negligence of authorities

Print edition : May 30, 2022 T+T-

Charred lives: Fire in Delhi’s Mundka exposes criminal negligence of authorities

Firefighters outside the building at Mundka, on the night of May 13. | Photo Credit: PTI

The massive fire in a factory in west Delhi that killed at least 27 workers exposes the criminal negligence practised by employers and governments that dilute labour laws to promote the ease of doing business.

As you enter the narrow lane, the spectacle of mangled fibreglass and women’s slippers strewn about tell of the tragedy that unfolded on May 13 in a factory in Mundka, west Delhi, claiming 27 lives. At 4 p.m. that day, the owner of Cofe Impex Private Limited, an assembling unit for WiFi routers, CCTV cameras, and reverse osmosis machines located on New Rohtak Road in Mundka, called a meeting of all his employees (numbering about 250) on the second floor of the building. The workers, including field staff, were told that it was an important debriefing and that attendance was compulsory. A foreign delegate was to attend the meeting.

A death trap

The meeting had just started when a fire broke out on one of the floors of the four-storeyed building. Probably caused by a short circuit in either the generator or one of the air conditioners, in less than a hour, the fire spread and smoke engulfed the second floor. The presence of combustible material like thinners used for cleaning camera lenses added to the inferno. The heat generated by the tough fibreglass and aluminium railings in the building’s balconies converted the place into a virtual death trap.

By the time the fire brigade arrived an hour and a half later, 27 people, most of them women, had died in the blaze and the thick smoke. Some workers were rescued by local people with the help of cranes and ropes. Some others jumped from the building on to mattresses provided by residents of the area. High tension wires in front of the building would have made that jump a difficult one. There were unverified reports that the foreign representative of the company, and the patriarch of the Lakra family who lived on the top floor of the building, also died in the blaze.

The building is owned by Manish Lakra and his family, who are residents of Mundka village. The factory itself had been rented out to the Goel brothers. A narrow staircase spirals up to the fourth floor and serves as both entry and exit from a side lane. Incidentally, the workers could not use the staircase during the fire and even on normal days because of storage boxes piled up near it. There is no front entrance in this building which faces the Mundka Metro line on New Rohtak Road.

Family members of those missing after the massive fire wait outside the office building at Mundka on May 15.
Family members of those missing after the massive fire wait outside the office building at Mundka on May 15. | Photo Credit: PTI Photo

One of the members of the Lakra family who was present managed to escape to the rooftop. According to the local residents, the factory had been set up with scant regard to regulations. They also said the number of casualties was much higher than the official count of 27. Some of the bodies were charred beyond recognition, making identification difficult. Local police said on the condition of anonymity that it was possible there were more bodies inside the four-storeyed building. The stench of burning flesh hung heavy in the air, and the building was gutted and unsafe to enter.

Burnt debris near the building. 
Burnt debris near the building.  | Photo Credit: T.K. Rajalakshmi

The only telltale signs of the people who were at the factory were the strewn slippers of women workers, some burnt ledgers and assembling equipment lying amid the burnt debris on the day Frontline visited the site. The whole building was charred from within. A “missing” poster of Praveen Gupta had been put up by his family members in the locality. There were posters of others too. In the list of 23 “missing persons” prepared by the police, the majority were women in the age group 19 to 45.

A poster for Praveen Gupta, who is “missing” after the fire.
A poster for Praveen Gupta, who is “missing” after the fire. | Photo Credit: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Criminal negligence

Survivors whom Frontline spoke to said there was no fire safety equipment, let alone fire extinguishers, in the building situated on a State highway. It was learnt that the factory that had been operating there for a few years did not have a no objection certificate from any of the authorities. Some of the people who lived close to the factory in Mundka village said that fires had broken out on two previous occasions as well and that they had helped extinguish it with sand and other material.

The fire station is about 5 km away, yet the fire brigade arrived only an hour and a half later. It is possible that the traffic congestion on that stretch delayed the firefighters. Crane operators who have shops in the vicinity were the first to come to the rescue, apart from local residents.

Renu, one of the survivors. She is not sure if she will get any compensation.
Renu, one of the survivors. She is not sure if she will get any compensation. | Photo Credit: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Renu is among the few survivors. A migrant from Bihar, she lives not far from the factory in a single room with her husband and children. She had joined the factory three years ago. In her sparsely furnished room, the chulha (stove) had not been lit. The gas cylinder was empty. Visibly distressed, she was initially reluctant to recount the events of May 13. Frequent visits to the police station had rattled her, and she was also upset that she was out of a job. “Firewood is so expensive. Gas (LPG) is unaffordable with the new rates. How does one manage? I have three children. I came out alive but I don’t know what to say. It was a nightmare. I have never experienced anything like this. It was a usual work day. I came around 10 a.m. Then we were told to attend the meeting at 4 p.m. At 4:30 p.m., the lights went out. And then there was smoke all over. We were choking. No one was able to get out. Then someone tried breaking the glass windows. That is how we got out. Someone got a crane. That is how I survived. I got injured when I was lowered by the crane. But what is the point? I have no work now. I used to get Rs.6,500 for working from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Now I have to look for work elsewhere. I have not received any money,” she said, referring to the compensation declared by the Delhi government for the deceased.

She was unsure if she was entitled to compensation as a survivor. She said that none of the workers had Provident Fund (PF) accounts or coverage under the Employees’ State Insurance (ESI) scheme. Barring Sundays and major festivals, there was no concept of a paid leave. Renu said that salaries would be deducted on the days workers went on long leave. There was no concept of a paid sick leave either.

Most of the workers who did the assembling work are paid between Rs.6,000 and Rs.8,000 a month; their starting salaries are even less, at Rs.4,500. These rates, it was learnt, are half of the minimum wage for unskilled workers in Delhi. “Women don’t demand higher wages and are less demanding. That is why factories prefer hiring them,” said one of the residents of the area, many of whom had rented their homes and property to migrants, mostly from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Manoj Thakur, whose wife Soni Kumari is among those declared “missing” after the fire. 
Manoj Thakur, whose wife Soni Kumari is among those declared “missing” after the fire.  | Photo Credit: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Thirty-nine-year-old Soni Kumari’s whereabouts are unknown even a fortnight after the incident. Her husband, Manoj Thakur, had done the rounds of all the hospitals and morgues. “They don’t let us inside the intensive care units. Maybe she is there,” he said, hopeful of her return. Her two minor children were told that their mother was away on long duty. Her brother had given a blood sample so that DNA verification could be done if needed. Manoj Thakur, a salesman, said he was at Dwarka when he received a call from her saying that a fire had started. “I told her to run and save herself. By the time I reached, the whole place was ablaze. One of her colleagues told me that she saw my wife come down but we haven’t heard from her. If she was alive she would have contacted me somehow,” said a distraught Manoj Thakur.

Ram Shesh Kabari and Babloo Kabari, scrap dealers who rescued several workers from the fire. 
Ram Shesh Kabari and Babloo Kabari, scrap dealers who rescued several workers from the fire.  | Photo Credit: T.K. Rajalakshmi

Two brothers, Ram Shesh “Kabari” and Babloo “Kabari”, who work as scrap dealers, and whose home is less than 50 metres away from the factory, rushed to the spot with ropes and cushions. “We were at home, resting after winding up the day’s work. My daughter saw the fire and called out. We rushed with ropes and old cushions. We threw the ropes upwards and the cushions we kept on the ground so that if people fell, they would not get injured. But we saw a man fall down when the rope got burnt. Many of them got blisters from the heat. They were coming down in pairs, sometimes four people were hanging on to the same rope. It was madness. The fire raged for six hours till 10 p.m.,” one of the brothers told Frontline. They said local crane operators rose to the occasion that day.

Two youngsters, Yogesh and Nishant, along with their father, also helped rescue the trapped workers. They said they knew the factory well as they supplied tea to the workers and staff. Yogesh said: “We have a small confectionery shop. My father runs it. We are people with ‘background’ like most in this village. By that I mean we are landowning and are well-off compared to the migrants who come here to work in the factories. The locals do not work in such factories. We give them a room or two on rent and everyone’s happy. But we know that the workers are paid very less. No one is really bothered about them.” On that day they attended to the injuries of many of the survivors.

‘Ease of doing business’

The Platform of Joint Trade Unions, comprising 13 national trade unions including the Indian National Trade Union Congress, Centre of Indian Trade Unions, Hind Mazdoor Sabha, All India Trade Union Congress, Indian Federation of Trade Unions, All India United Trade Union Congress and Trade Union Coordination Committee, held both the State government and the Central government culpable for diluting labour laws and promoting ease of doing business, which, they said, was one of the primary reasons for employers violating basic labour laws and sidestepping mandated safety measures.

They said the factory itself was illegal as it was not in an industrial area. There was no record of the actual number of employees as they were not PF subscribers or ESI beneficiaries. They said that two years ago, 43 people died at a factory on Rani Jhansi Road, and the State government had set up a judicial inquiry, the outcome of which no one knew. Anurag Saxena, secretary, CITU, said: “There are violations in both industrial and non-industrial areas. The Aam Aadmi Party blames the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and vice-versa. The MCD is responsible for the existence of the building. They’ve suspended a few officials in the name of taking action. Is that enough? The Labour Minister is answerable and so is the Central government. More than the owner of the factory, it is the Central and State governments that are culpable.”

Charred remains of the building after the Mundka fire, on May 15.
Charred remains of the building after the Mundka fire, on May 15. | Photo Credit: PTI Photo

The trade union representatives told the media that a board on industrial safety issues had been set up two years ago. No one knew what its recommendations were. In the Mundka fire, 27 of the dead were identified but there were several who were missing. They said if the government regularly conducted factory inspections, factory owners would be compelled to install safety measures.

The spate of fire-induced accidents in Delhi in both industrial and non-industrial areas shows that little has been done to address industrial safety issues. Most of the factories in Delhi are in bad shape, with “dilapidated buildings, poor ventilation, locked or jammed back doors, single entry/exit points” and lack display boards stating the name of the employer as well as number of employees. Implementation of labour laws such as the Minimum Wages Act, Factories Act, ESI Act, Employees’ Provident Fund and Miscellaneous Provisions Act is non-existent. The EPF and MP Act apply to all establishments that employ more than 20 workers and should have been applicable in this case as well.

In 2020, the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Bill (OSH) was passed by Parliament, replacing provisions in the Factory Act. On the basis of the second National Commission on Labour recommendations of 2002, the Central government had long since decided on the need to simplify laws to ensure ease of compliance by industry. Both Congress and BJP-led governments hold a similar view on simplifying labour laws for the convenience of industry. The Labour Codes, brought under the Narendra Modi regime, were therefore less to do with labour and more to do with industry.

Trade Union activists protest against the Labour Codes in front of the Labour Ministry in New Delhi in September 2020.
Trade Union activists protest against the Labour Codes in front of the Labour Ministry in New Delhi in September 2020. | Photo Credit: Kamal Narang

All labour laws were merged into four Codes, which dealt with industrial relations, wages, social security, safety and welfare and working conditions. The unions protested but to no avail. Barring the Left Parties and the majority of Central trade unions, no other opposition party raised a protest about the merger of all labour laws into four codes. The penalty for not maintaining registers (as is the case with most factories) or falsification of records were made compoundable to a large extent. This meant they could be “settled” by payment of a penalty or fine.

The OSH Bill empowered State governments to exempt any new factory from the provisions of the Code to create more employment and encourage industrial activity. The Bill on Industrial Relations also gives the government the power to exempt establishments from any or all of its provisions on grounds of public interest. The erstwhile Factories Act had allowed for such exemption only in case of public emergency and limited such exemptions for a period of three months.

A spate of accidents

It is ironic that the Central government has liberalised labour laws permitting night work for women, including working in hazardous industries, but has done little to ensure that the women who were already employed in the many sweatshops in the National Capital Region worked in safe conditions or received decent wages.

In 2018, 17 persons, ten women and seven men, were killed in a dynamite factory in Bawana. In February 2019, 17 workers died in a fire in Hotel Arpit in Karol Bagh. In December 2019, a massive fire broke out in a factory in Anaj Mandi area of North Delhi killing 43 people. This was deemed as one of the worst tragedies in Delhi.

Near the factory site in the Anaj Mandi area of New Delhi where a fire broke out on December 9 in which at least 43 people were killed.
Near the factory site in the Anaj Mandi area of New Delhi where a fire broke out on December 9 in which at least 43 people were killed. | Photo Credit: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP

A pilot project was initiated to implement safety plans in special areas. The National Human Rights Commission issued a notice to the Union Ministry of Urban Development which, according to media reports, set up a task force. No action was taken against any official. In June 2021, a fire in a shoe factory claimed the lives of six persons, five of whom were women.

The government has announced compensation for the deceased in the Mundka fire. Those like Renu who survived need to be economically rehabilitated and psychologically counselled as well.

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