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Criminal Negligence

Criminal Negligence

The untimely death of 43 hapless persons, largely poor daily wagers including minors, following a massive fire in an illegal factory in Delhi’s Anaj Mandi area this December 8 is shocking and nothing short of criminal negligence. 

The incident ought to serve as a wakeup call for effecting necessary measures to prevent recurrence of avoidable fire accidents besides putting in place a fool proof mechanism to end untold exploitation of migrant child labour.

There could be many answers as to how 15 different manufacturing units could operate within that building with impunity even as they lacked basic fire safety arrangements? 

If reports that the Anaj Mandi factory was home to hundreds of underage migrant workers, who were all paid a monthly sum of just Rs 500, is true, what were the regulatory authorities doing in checking such inhuman exploitation?

If the factory owners had locked up workmen, mostly migrant minors from outside for reasons whatsoever, does it not tantamount to illegal bonded labour?  

Where the innocent children brought to work in the factory through a network of middlemen and traffickers? An impartial probe can unravel as to what was actually going on inside the illegal factory.

For every such incident that gets unearthed which is just a tip of the iceberg, surely there must be many more still to be discovered.

Now that the Delhi High Court is seized of the matter following a PIL alleging that child labourers were employed at the said factory, where fire broke out, the angle of trafficking and illegal deployment child labour will also get hopefully probed.

The law will take its course but the harsh reality is that such type of fire accidents can recur if regulatory authorities are indifferent and callous towards public safety. Perhaps fast tracking the case and certainty of stringent punishment to both the perpetuators and the regulatory authorities who looked the other way can serve as a deterrent. 

It also needs to be first established as to who is responsible for enforcement of rules – the Delhi Fire Safety Department or the Municipal authorities. 

That the forensic experts have established a short circuit in an illegal electricity sub meter was responsible for the devastating fire, it merits for an immediate fire audit across Delhi and bring to book such unscrupulous elements responsible for the bungling. 

Even as the wounds of 1997 Uphaar Cinema tragedy in Delhi that killed 59 persons for no fault of theirs is yet to heal, nonetheless, on an average of 62 deaths are reported every day across the country due to accidental fire related mishaps that are in fact waiting to happen for a plethora of reasons.  

According to official statistics, 1,13,961 accidental fire-related deaths were reported in the country between 2010 and 2014. Although the main cause behind most of the fire outbreaks, both at residential as well as business locations, is attributed to electrical short circuit, it is important to appreciate that short circuits do not just happen, they are caused. 

How? All electrical items, cables, appliances and protection devices manufactured/sold in the country will have to conform to BIS standards notified in 2003. Also, to improve fire safety norms in buildings, the National Building Code, 2016 has detailed dos and don’ts for construction of buildings. Staircases, stairwells and corridors have to be well-maintained, ventilated and free of obstacles in order to be effective in an emergency. However, a major worry is noncompliance of prescribed standards coupled with the use of sub-standard and cheap materials. For instance, to mention a few - whether electrical cables and fittings are in line with the approved norms, be it residential or commercial?  Is the earthing inadequate?  Have cables been laid below the floor tiles or above flammable false ceilings?  It may not be possible for a common man to check whether due care has been taken with regard to electrical connections in apartments/commercial buildings. It is generally assumed building/electrical norms have been adhered to when a residential or commercial property is either taken on rent or purchased.  However, when there is a minor electrical problem, generally, some people prefer to avail the services of many a ubiquitous self-styled electrician, who might never be qualified or trained in the job but his easy availability and competitive charges seem to overshadow every other thing. 

In May 2019 when a fire broke out at a learning centre in Surat, Gujarat, where at least 20 people were killed, it was caused by an electrical short circuit. Loss of lives could have been prevented if the building had a functional fire escape.  When 17 people died after a fire broke out at a Delhi hotel in February 2019, the cause was electrical short circuit again. Well, the hotel too lacked mandatory safety measures in the first place. To top it all, inflammable material was kept everywhere and the corridors were not free that made any escape impossible, yet, the hotel was in possession of a no-objection certificate issued by the fire department In 2018, Mumbai alone has witnessed 12 major fire tragedies and 22 deaths. In December 2017, the Kamala Mills fire in Mumbai killed 14 people. In June 2017 an eight storied building of a leading textile showroom in Chennai was gutted and it took over 24 hours to bring it under control. A fire safety audit that was carried out across the city found nearly 2700 buildings were unsafe and violated fire safety norms. Yet that they were operating even without licenses from regulatory authorities, speaks volumes of patronage.

Studies suggest that the general causes of fire, among others, are directly related to inadequate fire safety audits. Moreover, when a fire breaks out, it remains a real challenge for firefighters and rescue teams to wade through traffic/congestion and reach the spot in the least possible time. At times, dousing fire in high rises is rather difficult due to lack of requisite equipment. 

As public safety primarily depends on the framing and execution of proper processes, besides effective enforcement of such norms in the right earnest, it is important that the various stakeholders, instead of turning a blind eye and passing on the buck, should act in a concerted manner. In matters of public safety, there can be no room for any complacency.

(Published on 16th December 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 51)