A deadly fire at an Anaj Mandi area factory in north Delhi killed 43
people in the early morning hours on Sunday; 16 to 20 people were injured.
The story sounds only too familiar: The building in a residential area of
Delhi was illegally operated as a factory that made various products,
including garments. About 70 factory workers – mainly migrants and some
minors – were sleeping in the factory when the fire broke out. While the
authorities tried to rush those injured to nearby hospitals, many died from
smoke inhalation.

Though compensation promises by the authorities were quick to come
forward, the worst fire in 20 years and the worst in the nation’s capital,
has exposed the need for stringent fire and building safety regulations and
their strict enforcement. “The manifestly unsafe factory highlights the
urgent need for enforcement of fire and building safety regulations and
credible safety monitoring in India,” said the Clean Clothes Campaign in a
statement on Monday.

Location and local practices hindered rescue operations

What hindered rescue operations was the location of the building that
housed various factories in Azad Market, in the old town of Delhi with
narrow alleyways. According to the BBC, “rescuers had to carry out victims
on their shoulders one-by-one with firefighters cutting away window grills
to access the building”. It is common in India to attach strong metal
grills to all windows to deter theft and unallowed entry. However, in case
of a fire, this is how buildings become death traps that leave only one or
no way out. At Anaj Mandi, one of the two staircases was also reportedly
blocked by stored products and the one accessible exit was locked.

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According to officials, the factory “lacked any safety licenses” and
various sources allege that the factory was operating illegally. “These
unnecessary deaths and other recent tragic building incidents show the
urgent need for transparent and credible enforcement of fire and building
safety regulations throughout India’s industrial sector. Existing
inspection systems, including the corporate social auditing firms used by
multinationals to check on their supplier factories, have thus far failed
to structurally improve factory safety across the country,” sums up the
Clean Clothes Campaign.

Government is promising compensation to victims

Though the Delhi government has been quick to come up with compensation
promises (1 million Indian rupees or about 14,100 US dollars to the
families of the deceased and 100,000 Indien rupees or 1,400 US dollars for
the injured as well as covering their medical expenses) and the Indian
government promised 200,000 Indian rupees or 2,800 US dollars and 50,000
rupees or 700 US dollars, respectively, to the families of the deceased and
the injured, they are merely ad hoc measures that do not take care of
workers’ needs in the long run.

“Compensation measures covering at least loss of income and medical
costs should be properly calculated for long-term coverage of the needs of
families who lost their breadwinners, based on established norms, as laid
down in ILO Convention 121 on employment injury benefits. Additionally,
compensation arrangements should take into account workers’ pain and
suffering,” advises the Clean Clothes Campaign.

How can workers still be trapped in factories?

In addition, the circumstances of the fire – which are by no means
exceptional or isolated but rather the norm – need to be scrutinised:
“These deaths furthermore raise the question as to why it is even possible
that workers are trapped in a factory fire on a weekend night, while the
factory was not operating. If workers were sleeping at the factory because
they could not afford housing or transportation costs, then this tragedy
sheds a light on the poverty wages pervasive throughout the industrial
sector, especially among vulnerable groups such as migrant workers and
minors,” points out the Clean Clothes Campaign.

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According to local media reports, the building and factory owner has
been arrested and the Delhi government ordered a magistrate level inquiry
and filed charges, however, finding one scapegoat to punish will not tackle
the problem at source and make factories safer in the long run.

“It remains unclear whether the factory was producing for export or the
growing internal Indian consumer market. Irrespective of who placed the
orders in the factory, they should take their responsibility to compensate
the workers who suffered making their product,” demands the Clean Clothes
Campaign.

Repeated factory fires – especially in garment producing countries other
than Bangladesh – show that the industry has a long way to go in terms of
establishing fire and building safety measures, compensating workers fairly
and taking pressure off factory owners by increasing price and time
margins. After all, none of the products made are ‘must have’ items anyway
– on the contrary, they are ‘nice to have’ at best and ‘wear and throw’
fast fashion at worst. And that is the real tragedy here.



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