Barely an hour before a fire at an illegal firecracker unit in northwest Delhi’s Bawana killed 17 people on Saturday evening, three women had walked out of the building, protesting their “hazardous” working conditions. During an argument that two of these women had with their supervisor, they had told the man they were finding it difficult to breathe because of the gunpowder in the air, and that their noses and throats felt blocked. They had demanded to know why the supervisor had not provided them with masks.
After the supervisor failed to persuade them to stay, and the women had collected their day’s wages of Rs 200 and walked out — a decision that possibly saved their lives. For two of the three women, Saturday was the first and last day of work at the firecracker unit.
On Sunday, the women — Meena, Chanchal and Rekha — told The Indian Express that they had been told of the employment opportunity by someone they knew, and that they had got jobs without having to answer any questions such as on their age, and without having to submit documents such as Aadhaar or other proof of identity. The women said they had no idea who they were working for. They were also unaware of the nature of the job, or that it included handling explosives.
The three women said neither they nor the other workers had any idea that the unit was violating the Explosives Rules of 2008, which prohibit the manufacture, import, export, transport, possession, sale or use of any explosive without authorisation. District Magistrate (North) Sakshi Mittal had said on Saturday that the unit was unauthorised, and had been running illegally, without a licence.
Under the Rules, explosives cannot be handled between sunset and sunrise. One of the survivors, Roop Prakash, however, said, “I used to work overtime from 9 am to 9 pm.” The three women said employees were paid Rs 6,000 for a month’s work, and an additional Rs 3,000 if they worked overtime.
The three women who left before the fire started are residents of B Block in Bawana’s Metro Vihar, where most of those who died also lived. “We must have done something good that we are alive today,” Chanchal, 21, said. “But I have promised myself that I will never again work in any factory without making proper inquiries.” She pointed to yellow marks that she had got on her body and clothes from handling gunpowder. “Sometimes my spit, too, would be yellow,” Chanchal said.
The unit’s owner, Manoj Jain, has told police that the yellow colour was because “coloured crackers” were being manufactured for Holi. He has been arrested and sent to judicial custody. The case has been transferred to Crime Branch for a “detailed investigation”. The government has ordered an inquiry and announced a compensation of Rs 5 lakh for the family of each deceased, and Rs 1 lakh for the injured.
Unit employees spent close to seven hours filling gunpowder into small packets — without masks and protective clothing apart from a pair of gloves. “I told the supervisor that we could not work in these conditions, and they should gives us our wages. The three of us took Rs 600 in all and left. The air inside was making me cough. While leaving, we tried to persuade two other women to leave too, but they did not,” Chanchal said.
The women said they were sent to work in a big hall on the first floor. “Twenty-five women and a few men worked there, with their faces covered with shawls. They worked in groups, and each group had a weighing scale. The powder had to be filled in small cylindrical tubes. There were two supervisors,” Rekha said.
“The crackers would be taken to the terrace and dried for a few hours by male workers. They would then be brought back to the first floor, where the women would pack them into cases,” Rekha said. There was one bathroom for all workers on the premises, and no drinking water facilities. There was only a tap where they could wash their hands having lunch on the terrace, the women said.
According to the women, two hours into their work, breathing became difficult. During lunch, they went to the roof to get some air. “A few men were washing clothes. An old woman told me that things would become easy soon. But they did not,” Meena said.
A few days ago, when 35-year-old Afsana began work at the factory, she told her husband Mukhtiar, 40, that her job “was to grind a ball and package it… rang ka kaam tha”. It was only after the fire that Mukhtiar learnt his wife was working at a firecracker factory. “I didn’t know… even she didn’t know. The factory supervisor lied to her, if I knew crackers were being made there, I would have asked her to look for another job. It’s too risky,” Mukhtiar said.
At the Dr BR Ambedkar Hospital in Rohini, 40-year-old Phoolwati was inconsolable — her 18-year-old daughter Rita had died in the fire. “It was her first day at the factory, and before joining, she told us it was a toy factory. We had no idea this was a firecracker factory… I wouldn’t have let her go if I knew,” she said.
Rajesh Kumar, general secretary of the Indian Federation of Trade Unions, said, “This is very common… a lot of labourers often don’t know what they are creating, or the names of the companies they work for. In this case, most were fooled into believing they were packaging colour because the contents were yellow.”
Like Afsana and Rita, 55-year-old Rajjo too told her three sons she was working in a factory where “rang ko pees kar packet mein bharna tha”. Rajjo’s 28-year-old son Harish said, “My mother was old, uneducated, and we needed money… it was her second day at work. She didn’t know these were firecrackers. We found out much later at night on Saturday.”