In 1996, factory owners across Delhi were asked to relocate to Bawana with the promise of a world-class industrial area. Over two decades later, Bawana is in news again — this time for a fire that claimed 17 lives. One could say a tragedy like this was a long time coming. According to the Delhi Fire Services (DFS), more than 1,500 fire-related incidents were reported from Bawana between April 2016-17, an average of four fires a day.
A large part of the problem, officials told The Indian Express, is a flaw in Bawana’s building plans. A majority of factories in the industrial area are 200 square metres (sq m) or below — hardly enough to construct safety mechanisms.
According to the DFS, a factory must have at least two escape routes — an emergency staircase, fireproof doors and a fire extinguisher every 50 sq m. The Bawana Chamber of Industries (BCI) estimates that there must be a 10-foot open space at the entrance and the rear, and a six-foot-wide gallery space to make sure fire does not spread and a speedy exit is possible.
But if a 100 sq m unit wants to be fire safe, it would be left with 70-75 sq m to run its operations, house heavy machinery, drinking water facilities, toilets, canteen and a cabin for the supervisor.
In fact, large machinery is what makes plastic factories the most vulnerable, DFS officials said. The injection moulding machine takes up more than 45 sq m, and an additional 10 per cent space is needed to create a safe buffer. This barely leaves any space for people to move, leave alone run to safety in case of a fire.
“How will one run a factory in 100 sq m and also follow fire safety provisions? After the death of those workers, everyone said we have given jailhouses to them. But we also live in these jailhouses, allotted to us by the Delhi State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation (DSIIDC),” said BCI chairman Prakash Chand Jain.
The DSIIDC, responsible for allotment of plots and maintanence of the area, allotted land to the factories beween 1998 and 2000. Increasing floor area is now prohibited.
In 1996, the Supreme Court had ordered relocation of industries operating in Delhi’s residential areas in violation of the Delhi Master Plan. The court order was meant to decongest the city, reduce pollution in residential areas, and provide an industrial area for small-scale businesses.
DSIIDC records state that on the 1,865 acres of land procured in Bawana village for Rs 7.33 lakh per acre, 51,214 had made a demand for land. The industries were divided into 17 categories, with the auto parts industry taking up the largest chunk (22.96%).
But each factory was given limited space. As per DSIIDC records, 24,501 plots were demanded for 100 sq m factories, and 15,043 for 200 sq m units when the industrial area came up. Several applicants were either denied land or relocated to other industrial areas because they couldn’t afford land in Bawana, the BCI said.
To further complicate matters, factories sized below 250 sq m do not need a No Objection Certificate (NoC) from the DFS.
According to the latest data by the Bawana Infra Development Pvt Ltd, tasked by DSIIDC to look after the industrial area, 16,312 units operate in space less than 250 sq m. According to officials, the factory that caught fire on January 20 exceeded this figure.
“For small plots, there is no requirement for NoC. This was done so that small-scale factory owners are not harassed. To make appropriate fire safety provisions, factory owners need to spend at least Rs 1 lakh, apart from maintenance cost, which a lot of them cannot pay,” said DFS chief fire officer Atul Garg.
In 2016, two firefighters had died in an explosion at a Narela factory, prompting DFS and the Bawana Chamber of Commerce to organise an NoC registration drive. As per DFS records, 636 applications were received. “All were rejected after DFS found that fire safety recommendations were not followed,” Garg said.
According to the DDA Master Plan 2021, there should be a fire post in three-four km radius, and a fire station within five-seven km in an industrial area. The DFS has two fire stations in the 1,920-acre Bawana industrial area, with two fire tenders and two water bowsers at each station. There are no fire posts. Factory owners say they have installed their own water tankers on terraces.
“Most factories may have water tankers but they do not have hoses or pumps to use that water. Our bowsers can store 12,000 litres,” said a fireman from Bawana fire station. However, the station is perpetually short-staffed. On January 20, when the fire broke out at the firecracker unit, a majority of first respondents were already fighting fires at two plastic factories in Bawana.
“We were exhausted. The staff is routinely shifted across other fire stations, and we have to put in 24-hour shifts. In summers, we work five days non-stop,” the fireman said.
Bipin, a dye operator, had sustained burns to his hands last year, when a fire broke out at the plastic-making factory he worked at. The unit had three water tankers, but no pumps.
With the death of 17 workers, the BCI is organising yet another camp for re-registration of NoC. “I don’t think they will give the NoC. I have a unit of 300 sq m and I cannot make an emergency staircase and a back door. I have two injection moulding machines, which take up the bulk of the space. There is no room for even a supervisors’ cabin. I want to expand my factory but the DSIIDC will not allow it,” said Rakesh, an auto parts factory owner.
Vikas Gupta, the divisional manager at DSIIDC, said factory owners cannot make new constructions as they had signed allotment forms in 1996 and there is no additional space. “We had to accommodate all factory owners who wanted land. There is only limited space in the industrial area,” Gupta maintained.
The dearth of service lanes and back lanes is another cause for concern — even in case of the fire that killed 17, the factory did not have a back lane.
Explaining why the victims were working on a Saturday, Saurabh, a supervisor at a corrugated box factory in Bawana Sector 1, said, “We start work by 5 am but the power supply is turned on only at 3.30 pm. The day’s work suffers, so we call workers on weekends.”
For Ramesh, who operates a steel strap machine in a 250 sq m factory, the space crunch is a constant struggle. Due to lack of space, he says he has to duck through a makeshift hole to gain access to the steel utensil storage. The workers at the unit, he says, are not provided gloves, uniforms or even a helmet.
“We have to be completely alert in the small space. There is no question of an emergency exit. If a fire breaks out, I will go to the top floor and use the emergency slide, which we use to dump debris. The main doors are closed, except when it is time to load and unload goods,” he said.
Ever since the fire, some factory owners have been frequenting the BCI office to install their own fire safety systems. Neeraj, who runs a plastic-making factory, has spent around Rs 15,000 on a ceiling-mounted extinguisher that sprays Monoammonium Phosphate if the room temperature crosses 65 degrees Celsius.
“I am trying to save my own factories as I don’t want to wait for the authorities,” he said.