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Bawana factory fire: The making of a tinderbox

A factory owner procures a licence to make a particular product. Except, he doesn’t — he gives different parts of the factory on rent to people who make what they want, with scant regard for safety norms or labour laws. Welcome to Bawana, where each day is a tragedy waiting to happen

Written by Kaunain Sheriff M , Alok Singh | New Delhi |
Updated: June 25, 2018 4:48:33 pm
Bawana, Delhi, Delhi Fire, Bawana fire, delhi factory fire, bawana industrial area, bawana factory owner, Manoj Jain, indian express Mourning the dead at Metro Vihar, where most of the victims lived (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

Chanana Polymer, a factory that deals with manufacturing of plastic raw material, is located in Sector 5 of Bawana Industrial Area’s F Block. At the end of the lane is the illegal firecracker packaging unit, which went up in flames on Saturday night, killing 17 people. Between the two buildings are more than a dozen other factories, stacked side by side.

However, this polymer factory stands out — it’s the only one in the lane with a factory signage. A look around and one realises it’s an exception, not the norm in this area. The absence of signage signify how a majority of these factories operate with impunity, with scant regard for norms.

“The land is given by the DSIIDC (Delhi State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation) to a single person. He then receives a licence from the MCD to operate a particular kind of factory. But this never happens. About 80% of these factories are shut down by their owners, who then rent out the space to another person. This person doesn’t procure a fresh licence, but operates the factory — which could be producing something entirely different than what was initially proposed — with the old licence. Hence, you will not find any signage here, because the person who is actually operating out of the space is not on the record books,” said a labourer from Gorakhpur, who did not wish to be named.

Even in the case of the ill-fated Bawana unit, The Indian Express learnt that 50-year-old Manoj Jain, arrested by Delhi Police in the wake of the fire, got the factory on rent from his friend Lalit Goel — who had originally procured a licence to manufacture plastic material.

According to police, to make a quick buck, Jain — without procuring a fresh licence to operate a firecracker packaging unit — started one, and secretly ran it by placing a plastic sheet near the main gate as a cover-up.
Jain, a resident of Tri Nagar in northwest Delhi, was arrested on Saturday night and booked under IPC sections 285 (negligent conduct with respect to fire or combustible matter), 304 (punishment for culpable homicide not amounting to murder), 337 (causing hurt by act endangering life or personal safety of others), as well as the Explosives Act.

Bawana, Delhi, Delhi Fire, Bawana fire, delhi factory fire, bawana industrial area, bawana factory owner, Manoj Jain, indian express Seventeen people — 10 of them women — were killed in a fire that broke out at an illegal firecracker unit in outer Delhi’s Bawana on Saturday evening. None of the victims had a fixed contract with the unit. (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

Read | Bawana factory fire: Whose job was it to keep a check? Civic body, AAP pass the buck

“Jain already owned a rakhi manufacturing unit. He told police he was going to wrap up the firecracker packaging business soon as it was seasonal in nature — he had set it up for the upcoming Holi festival, and was planning to package ‘coloured firecrackers’. On January 1, he took the building on rent for Rs 25,000 a month, and hired at least 40 workers from nearby factories. He assured workers they would be paid advance salaries on January 25. Most of the workers he hired were women, and they worked in shifts. The production started on January 8,” police sources said.

Police also found that even Goel had taken the building on rent from a woman, who is the actual owner. Police sources said that before January 1, the building remained vacant for over a month. Earlier, the building was hired for stitching plastic sacks, but work was discontinued after four months.

Read | Why 10 of 17 dead in Bawana factory fire are women: Take less pay, don’t unionise

DCP (Rohini) Rajneesh Gupta told The Indian Express that they are yet to ascertain Goel’s role. “Building documents are being checked,” he said. This complex web — of who owns the factory and who actually runs each individual unit — also makes fixing responsibility harder, which could explain why each agency is blaming the other.  “When I came here, the factory was a metal welding one. Over time, each floor was given to a different operator. Now, I work in a food packaging unit on the second floor. But this company does not have a licence on paper. The food safety department should ideally inspect it — but on paper this unit does not even exist. Hence, due to the complex web of ownership, enforcement is a big problem,” said a labourer.

Read | Bawana factory fire: A night spent without any sleep — or answers

This also explains why labour laws are blatantly violated, and workers have little or no rights.  “Since a majority of these factories are illegal, labourers do not receive a state insurance card. Usually, Rs 150 is cut from the salary… and we are eligible for health insurance. However, since the factory does not exist on paper, we are not given any benefits. The labour department does not do anything about the violations,” said another labourer from Jaunpur.

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