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What Anaj Mandi tragedy shows

It’s an open secret that the capital city’s factories employ minors but the authorities pretend not to see, activists say

Even as night falls on Monday, the lane leading to the North Delhi building where 43 workers were killed in a fire the previous morning is teeming with visitors, most of them trying to catch a glimpse of the illegal manufacturing unit.

The fire, apparently caused by a short circuit around 5 am, had turned the building in Anaj Mandi into a death trap for the sleeping workers, mostly from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

The charred five-storey building stands on a street cramped with such structures, electric and phone wires inundating the skyline around them. It had been inspected only about a week earlier by civic authorities that found its two top floors locked. Varsha Joshi, commissioner of the North Delhi Municipal Corporation, has been reported as claiming that the inspector would have gone back to issue a showcause notice to the owner, one Mohammad Rehan. But as it was, scores of people lost their lives before the authorities could act. The workers were sleeping in cramped rooms with small or no windows to let in fresh air when the fire started, reportedly on the second floor. Asphyxiation from inhaling smoke and hazardous amounts of carbon monoxide was thus the major cause of death.

A person working with a human rights group said while the uproar over this incident focuses on the flouting of building and fire safety norms, “there’s very little spoken of the violation of existing labour laws by the owner of the factory as well as the agent who brought these workers here from their home state”. And their deplorable working conditions, he added, “are symptomatic of how migrant workers are exploited in small-scale and unorganised industries across the country”.

Indeed, this tragedy underlines how India’s capital has failed to check blatant violations of both building and safety norms, and labour laws: the residential building was being used for commercial purposes, it had no fire safety provisions, it was a factory that made its 100 or more workers live and work in the same restricted space, and employed minors.

Ramzan Ali was outside Maulana Azad Medical College Hospital’s mortuary, where 34 of the dead had been brought. His nephew, Akbar, all of 14, was one of them. He had come to Delhi from Bihar’s Samastipur three months ago to work at the factory. “I didn’t even know he was here until 15 days ago when he came to visit me.”

He says Akbar’s parents wanted to come to Delhi to take their son’s remains home but he told them not to. “They would have had to spend Rs 5,000. Instead, I said I will come there with their boy.” The Bihar government had earlier announced a special train to transport the victims’ remains but after their families objected, it declared that the bodies would be ferried by ambulances.

Akbar will be one of them. He had left his studies at a madrasa to move to Delhi. “It was difficult at home so his parents sent him here. Why else would a parent send their child away? They are labourers, they thought he would learn a skill,” Ali says.

There are similar stories of people moving to the capital in the hope for a better life, of relatives and friends of the victims sharing news of the tragedy with their families back home. Naseem, waiting outside the mortuary with his wife, though, is not giving all the details to his sister, who is back in Bihar. Shehnaz, 19, does not yet know that her husband Sajid died in the fire, along with his brother Wajid, 16, who Naseem says had been working at the factory for five years.

Naseem doesn’t intend to tell Shehnaz until he’s close to the home that has lost two sons. Another of Sajid’s brothers, Wazid, 21, survived the blaze. “He had worked till 3 am and just gone to bed when he noticed something was wrong. He tried to wake up his brothers but they did not believe him when he said there was a fire,” Naseem says, adding that they were on the third floor. “They thought he was joking, playing a prank. In a hurry, and scared, he ran.”

He now waits with his father at the mortuary for the bodies of his brothers to be handed over.

“I have told my sister that they are in a serious condition but alive. I’ll tell them they died on the way home, else I don’t know what will happen there,” Naseem says, “If someone gets a heart attack, how would we be able to pay for the medical costs? Everything I am doing is after a lot of thought.” Shehnaz and Sajid, Naseem said, had their second daughter just a few days before the tragedy.

The reports that minors were working at the factory are accurate, says Masroor Ali. He lost his nephews Shajid, 19, and Sadre, 25, who had been working there for the past three years.

Closer to Sadre, Ali would visit him almost every Sunday. “That’s the morning it happened,” he says. During such visits, he saw some minors working at the unit. “Like in the bag-making factory, they would prefer children to put in the zippers as it is cheaper. If you bring in adults for a small task such as this, they would demand more money,” he points out.

In fact, Ali admits that just last year another one of his cousins had been stopped at a Delhi railway station for bringing in minors for labour. “I went to our village in Samastipur to sort it out,” he says. “The parents cannot afford to raise the children so this seems like a better alternative than roaming about and being idle, and getting into some wrong habits. They don’t have that much income to be able to educate their children, so they send them here to at least learn some skills.”

Hanif Ur Rehman, an advocate with Justice Ventures International, says commercial ventures in Nabi Karim and Sadar Bazar areas are known for such labour law violations. In April this year, they had rescued 36 children from a bag making factory in Nabi Kareem area, which is less than eight minutes away from Anaj Mandi, living in squalid conditions.

Rehman says these children are usually made to work in bag-making factories, where they live, eat, and work for over 12 hours a day. “Everyone knows these areas are filled with child labour. These are ghettos, where once you just walk through you will see that it is no secret,” he says. “But nobody is interested in doing something. This has been happening, is happening and will continue to happen.”

The National Human Rights Commission has described the tragedy as a catastrophe that was waiting to happen, and issued notices to Delhi’s chief secretary and police chief as well as the commissioner of the North Delhi Municipal Corporation.