On the morning of December 8, 2019, Md Dulare was at his home in Burari, when his younger brother Md Raju called him to inform that his building had caught fire and he was stuck.
“I asked him to leave the site as soon as possible. But he told me he is unable to get out. Soon he stopped speaking. I kept calling out ‘Hello, Hello’ but there was no response. The line snapped. After a while, a policeman picked the call and informed that the phone is in the police station,” Dulare, 31, who currently works in Sadar Bazaar, Delhi told Patriot.
The fire that had engulfed the factory building in Anaj Mandi near Paharganj, where the 24-year-old Raju was trapped, left at least 45 people, including minors, dead and over 50 injured.
The victims were mostly migrant workers and belonged to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The fire resulted from a short circuit in the morning when most of the people were sleeping inside the factory.
“I rushed on my scooty and reached the building in Anaj Mandi but he was not there. Then I went to the LNJP Hospital and collected his dead body from there. The government provided an ambulance to our hometown and we buried him there,” said Dulare.
Raju, who was working in Delhi for around five years, belonged to Muzaffarpur district in Bihar. He got married only a year before his death.
“Earlier he worked in Sadar Bazaar but one month before his death, he started working in the building fated for disaster and lived there too. After his death, the compensation promised by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar were received but the Modi government did not fulfil its promise,” added Dulare.
Kejriwal had announced a compensation of Rs 10 lakh to victims’ families and Rs 1 lakh to the injured.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi also declared a compensation of two lakh rupees for the dead and 50,000 rupees for the injured.
Nitish Kumar announced compensation for those who belonged to the state.
Things, however, have returned to normal in the affected area four years later. The factory has restarted and business is usual like in other markets of Delhi.
Though most people don’t want to talk about the dreadful incident, some workers say that safety equipment has increased. Fire cylinder is mandatory and officers drop in regularly to check.
When Patriot visited some factories, the safety precautions weren’t foolproof.
In a patching and tailoring workshop, there was no light on the staircase used as an approach while raw material was stored in the gallery. Ten people, including four ladies, work there. The washroom was carved out of the workshop by drawing a curtain.
Minors, also victims in the accident, continue to work in the area.
A native of Bihar, who works in a cap manufacturing factory, said though the safety amenities have increased and some factories have shifted to outer Delhi areas like Bawana, there are still risks involved.
Delhi Police submitted a status report in Delhi High Court in January 2023, which revealed loopholes. According to the report, nine out of the 45 dead were minors. The building was ‘very crowded’, not properly ventilated nor was it compartmentalised besides lacking the fire safety arrangements.
The victims’ families haven’t been able to come to terms.
Mustaq, who lost his elder brother in the tragedy, said, “I never visited that area after the incident. I used to go there once a month to meet my brother but now I don’t like to go there.
Mustaq is currently involved in jari work in Shakurpur.
His brother Abbas, originally from Sitamarhi in Bihar, was working in a cap manufacturing factory for around a decade and also lived there.
“Police called me early morning to say that my brother was in a serious condition and admitted to Ram Manohar Lohia (RML) Hospital. I rushed from Shakurpur. My brother’s father-in-law was also admitted. Both of them died.”
Mustaq has two other brothers, who work in Punjab and Mumbai.
“Although we got a compensation of Rs 12 lakh, we can’t forget this incident. Zindagi bhar yaad rahegi (We will remember it forever),” he said.
The status report of police said that the four accused, Rehan Qureshi, Mohd Suhail, Furkan and Imran were arrested and booked under several sections. A chargesheet has been filed in the matter and the case is presently under trial.
Qureshi, who is an accused in the status report, is the owner of the building and was present at the time of Patriot’s visit.
“I gave this building on rent (he showed papers) with proper documents. The workers were not associated with me but others. I was only the owner of the building. There was cross ventilation and exit on the other side too (he showed, but did not allow pictures to be taken). But they (workers) covered the windows due to cold weather and that led to asphyxiation, which caused their death. There was barely any injury on the dead bodies.”
Qureshi spent six months in jail.
“Seven agencies have given clean chit to me in the last four years. One case is under trial in Tees Hazari Court. We attended the last hearing on November 2,” he said.