Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 28 January 2020

Delhi fire: lives cannot be lost due to loss of care and safety measures being flouted

Authorities must work with the police and local business owners to eliminate fire hazards

The relative of a victim of the New Delhi building fire cries outside the emergency ward of Lok Nayak Hospital, in New Delhi. EPA
The relative of a victim of the New Delhi building fire cries outside the emergency ward of Lok Nayak Hospital, in New Delhi. EPA

At 5am on Sunday India woke up to tragedy. A four-storey building housing unlicensed factories in Delhi was set ablaze by an electrical short circuit, costing 43 people their lives. Those who perished in the flames were mostly labourers who were sleeping at their workplace. For many of the victims, this was the only place they could afford to dwell in. The firefighters who attempted to rescue them could not get within 100 metres of the congested area leading to the building, where narrow alleyways and tangled electrical wires made it impossible for vehicles to get through.

Most of the workers who died in the flames moved to Delhi from India’s eastern states, in search of a better life. On Sunday, their dreams and those of hundreds of families who have lost a loved one, came to an end.

The blazing building was so hard to reach for rescuers that victims had the time to call their families as they were dying. Zakir Hussain told The National that his brother Shakir, who died in the fire, called his wife shortly before his demise. “He told her he might not survive, that the factory was filled with smoke and he was choking. His wife has been crying all morning," he said.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the fire as “extremely horrific" and said the government is providing assistance, authorities have to make these neighbourhoods secure and ensure unscrupulous employers abide by the law. Had the factory owner and local authorities respected existing safety rules, many lives could have been spared. The owner of the building and its manager have been arrested, but much more could be done to enforce fire safety measures flouted by greedy factory owners.

In India, a substantial number of manufacturers are located in the old parts of big cities that are cheaper to rent but these often congested areas can be fire hazards. Yet factories continue to operate there illegally. This has allowed unscrupulous factory owners to cut costs by saving on basic security requirements, even if this means putting innocents’ lives in danger. The four-storey building that caught fire housed such illegal factories, where 20 rooms on each floor were connected by a single stairway, with only one entrance to the entire building that was essentially blocked by electrical wires.

Labourers should not have to die, simply for trying to make a living

These appalling conditions sparked Delhi’s biggest fire in two decades. Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s housing and urban development minister has called out the Delhi government for overlooking these grave violations of safety and fire norms.

The tragedy may taint the legacy of the city’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who has pledged to tackle corruption throughout his political life. He has many achievements to boast, but this catastrophic loss of life will cast a long shadow.

Factory owners must care for their workers and abide by the law. Labourers should not have to die, simply for trying to make a living. One solution is to provide them with decent housing or at the very least pay them the minimum legal wage so that they can afford shelter. Many workers cannot afford Delhi rents and are reduced to sleeping in their workplace, like the victims of Sunday’s fire. Some workers of the charred factory say they were paid as little as 1,000 rupees (Dh52) a month, while others said they earned a salary of about 9,000 rupees (Dh465) – these figures are well below the official minimum wage of 14,842 rupees (Dh766) for unskilled workers.

Workers walk on a street near a factory site where a fire broke out a day before, in New Delhi. AFP
Workers walk on a street near a factory site where a fire broke out a day before, in New Delhi. AFP

As India mourns its dead and pays tribute to the nearly 150 fire fighters who saved the lives of many who were trapped in the building, authorities must work hand in hand with the police and local business owners to ensure that safety regulations are met so that no more lives are lost.

Updated: December 9, 2019 07:16 PM

SHARE

SHARE