Put out the fire

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The owners of the building had reportedly not applied for a no-objection certificate from the fire safety department before converting their premises into manufacturing units.

Acharred five-storey building in Anaj Mandi in the periphery of Delhi’s walled city area bears testimony to one of the city’s worst fire accidents since the Uphaar tragedy of 1997. In the early hours of Sunday, a fire swept through the residential building that housed several manufacturing units, asphyxiating 43 workers, at least five of them minors. The 600-square-yard building is a typical example of a manufacturing units cluster, operating without permits, from cramped residential quarters. It had just one exit that could be used — the second exit was blocked by piles of goods, many of them combustible. This, and the fact that the five floors of the building had barely any ventilation, meant that the workers, most of them immigrants, had very little chance to escape. The owners of the building had reportedly not applied for a no-objection certificate from the fire safety department before converting their premises into manufacturing units. In fact, less than 24 hours before Sunday’s blaze, the area had seen two other factory fires, which were doused before there they could cause any harm.

Union Urban Affairs Minister Hardeep Singh Puri has laid the blame on the doors of the Delhi Fire Safety (DFS) department. The DFS has thrown up its hands, claiming that it has little enforcement powers, which, it says “is the prerogative of the city’s municipal authorities”. Delhi is not new to such blame games — the last round happened in February, when a fire swept through a hotel in northwest Delhi, killing at least 17 people. But questions raised in the aftermath of such episodes have never moved municipal and fire safety authorities to take concerted action to plug the loopholes in the city’s accident preparedness. This has meant that Part Four of the National Building Code, which has detailed instructions on fire safety, and Delhi’s own fire safety rules have remained, for the most part, dead letters.

In the post-liberalisation era, unregulated manufacturing units have mushroomed in several lower-middle class residential areas, unauthorised colonies and slum clusters of the capital. Anaj Mandi is a good example of the liberalised economy’s underbelly. Once a flourishing wholesale grain market, its traders have now moved to bigger markets. In the mandi’s serpentine lanes, units producing school bags, garments and toy factories and printing units exist cheek-by-jowl with residential quarters. These, as Sunday’s accident shows, are tinderboxes. The Delhi municipality’s standard response after such accidents has been to crack the whip on individual offenders. The government has, at times, tried to move some of these unregulated units to new industrial hubs such as Bawana and Narela. But by all accounts, these plans have not succeeded because the owners and workers of these factories found relocation uneconomical. Shouldn’t the government, which swears by small-scale industry, attempt a more creative solution that enables safer working conditions without stifling entrepreneurship?