For 'ease of doing business', workers' lives are dispensable
Fact-finding team draws attention to the reason behind fires - violations of safety norms.
On May 13, a fire broke out at Cofe Impex Pvt Ltd, a CCTV camera and router manufacturing and assembling company in Mundka, Delhi, in which 30 workers were reported to have died. Several are still missing. While the media and politicians were quick to call the incident 'tragic', a Delhi-based fact-finding team tries to draw attention to the reason why such 'tragic accidents' are rampant across the country's industrial areas - violation of safety norms by employers in the name of saving costs.
The fact-finding team under the Collective Organisation, which visited the site a day after the accident, has recently published a report on fires and deaths of workers in industrial areas in Delhi. According to published reports, most industrial fire accidents are caused by inadequate safety measures by the owners to maximise profits.
"In the Mundka fire incident, we observed that there was no fire safety approval given to the factory by the Fire Department which comes under the Delhi Government. The verification that the Delhi Police was supposed to have done was also not done. In the same way, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) is also supposed to provide NOC for each industrial work at such sites. But we could not find any such NOC provided to the factory," Sourya M, a member of Collective Delhi said.
The term 'accident' hides the fact that factory fires are caused by a series of administrative blindspots. #Mundka #Mundkafiretragedy— COLLECTIVE Delhi (@COLLECTIVEDelhi) May 17, 2022
Here's a map of major factory fires in the last two decades alone. There are countless which go unreported. pic.twitter.com/Fixbfs9Skg
The fact sheet released by Collective Delhi stated that the building had a single entry-exit point and only one staircase, it was not equipped with fire extinguishers. Moreover, the fire service took over an hour and a half to arrive at the scene after the fire was reported.
"The fire was believed to have started by a short circuit. In a factory that deals with electronics, there are always chances of an impending fire hazard. It is more than necessary for such industrial premises to keep a fire service handy. But none of that was followed at the Mundka site. The infrastructure was not at all adequate for the factory," Sourya said.
These facts are being concealed by the words 'accident' and 'tragedy', he further said.
The Collective Delhi is largely a student organisation. Its activities currently take place in colleges and universities in Delhi. Prior to Mundka, the organisation also investigated a fire incident in Delhi's Anaj Mandi in 2019, that had left 43 people dead.
Amartyajyoti Basu, one of the researchers who was in the fact-finding team, told Indie Journal, "This report tried to observe the general pattern of fire incidents and government's response to those. Our team studied 18 industrial fires in Delhi from the Green Park fire incident on June 13, 1997, to the Mundka May 13, 2022, in Mundka."
According to the report, the management, to some extent, would be able to control 98 percent of all accident-causing factors in the workplace. Uncontrolled actions account for 2 percent of all workplace accidents. (Source: dgfasli.gov.in, 2019-20, Introduction to Effective Incident / Accident Analysis, pp-3).
Two owners of the Mundka factory and the owner of the building were arrested within two days of the incident and section 304 was imposed on them. No owner has been jailed for a few years. They will be in jail, as long as the incident stays in the news. After that, they are released only in two-three months. Unless some action is taken against them, such accidents will continue to happen," Basu said.
Photo - Hindustan Times
Industrial fires are usually classified as ‘accident in doing a lawful act’, under Section 80 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). It states, 'nothing is an offence which is done by accident or misfortune, and without any criminal intention or knowledge in the doing of a lawful act in a lawful manner by lawful means and with proper care and caution'. "Any person having minimum knowledge of industrial conditions in India will not be able to fit the cases of industrial injuries into this legal definition of ‘accident’. The word ‘accident’ obscures the very fact that the overwhelming majority of the industrial injuries are caused due to inadequate safety measures ensured by the owners to extract maximum profit," the report states. Sourya adds that most of the factories are neither registered nor submit returns and the government does not care about the formal responsibility of inspecting registered companies. "The industrial fire was an accident, but it was due to various authorities not working properly. In almost all such fire incidents, however, the elected representatives and the corporate media term them as tragic incidents or accidents," he says.
The report also points out that the rules and regulations for workplace safety in the factory are not found to be followed in most such fire cases. "The inspections which should be done in the factory as per the labour laws are often not conducted. The number of on-site inspections in Delhi has been dropping. Moreover, several fire incidents go unreported as well," Basu states.
Talking about these unregulated fire incidents around Delhi, Sourya added, "A fire broke out in Kirti Nagar of Delhi on the same evening of May 13. There was a major fire on May 14 as well in Narela, Delhi. But they did not receive attention like the Mundka incident."
Today AICCTU protested in front of CM residence in Delhi against the wilful negligence of Delhi government and MCD that facilitated #MundkaFire and the death of the workers. pic.twitter.com/P3ZWqp6IDP— AICCTU Delhi (@AICCTU_tweets) May 20, 2022
The report highlights how the system makes it easier for the industries to get away with the negligencies that can cause such hazardous incidents under the pretext of providing 'ease of doing business'. "The maze of approvals required for operationalising such manufacturing units is seen as an impediment to India’s growth story. Indeed, these ‘costs of compliance’ are sought to be reduced by recent changes in labour laws which promise greater ‘ease of doing business' in India," the report states.
In 2017, a Rajasthan Government report recommended that section 304 of criminal negligence should not be applied while registering such offences against the company owner, instead 304A which is a bailable section must be used.
"All these compromises are being made by talking to the employer about ease of doing business, but this compromise is endangering the safety and lives of many workers. If you follow all the cases, you will see this pattern in which the owner is saved. Many such fact-finding reports are made after such incidents, but they are ignored. Everyone from Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to Prime Minister Modi called the Mundka fire incident a tragedy. But it's their government that is behind this tragedy, it is their responsibility," Basu added.
The Central Government recently repealed 40 existing labour laws and replaced them with four new labour codes. "The Occupational Safety Code is one of the four codes under which states that factories that employ 300 workers r more must be regularly inspected. For those with less than 300 workers, the inspection could be done online. But if you look at the latest economics Census of 2016, industrial units employing 10 or more workers account for only 1.66 percent of the total units in the non-agricultural sector. Thus, the Labour Code excludes a large number of workers from the coverage," Sourya said.