National Highway 8, which connects Delhi to Mumbai, exits the urban sprawl of Gurgaon to enter an arid landscape where village women forage for firewood and factories often fight fire.

About 50 km from Delhi, one of the first industrial areas to appear on NH-8 is Manesar.

Here, a factory that makes beverage coolers caught fire in April.

Executives of the company, Frigoglass, pressed their fire hydrants into service, while frantically calling for help.

"One of the first to come to our assistance was Maruti,” said Sushil Varma, an assistant manager at the company's factory. The automobile giant, which has a factory adjoining Frigoglass, began to spray water from across the wall. Two other companies in the area sent across their mini-fire tenders.

But it took professional firemen more than half an hour to arrive from Gurgaon, about 20 km away. They came from both the government's fire station in the city and the fire station of DLF.

DLF is a construction company that has built landmark residential and commercial enclaves in Gurgaon.

Its luxury apartment complex has a fire station of its own. But Manesar, an industrial tinderbox with many chemical-based units, does not.

Although fierce, the fire in Frigoglass took no casualties. It was a Sunday morning and workers were not at work. But what if the fire had chosen another day?

The view of a veteran

His namesake in Ramayana set Lanka on fire. But Hanuman Chandra Sihag’s job is to keep it under control. As DLF’s fire and safety manager, he divides time between the two fire stations of the company – one within its residential complex, the other in its commercial enclave.

“We have the latest fire-fighting equipment that no one else in the country has,” he claimed, running through a quick checklist: fire tenders that can hold 18,000 litres of water, a 90-metre ladder that can help fight fire even at 125 metres of height, a hoser that can spray 3,600 litres of water a minute, and fire-fighters who were “as well trained as NSG commandos”.

Such is the degree of caution exercised by his team, said Sihag, that they have additionally posted a fire truck outside DLF’s hub of restaurants. “The food hub is less than 300 metres from our fire station but we decided to post a fire truck because that stretch of road is often jammed with traffic.”

DLF’s concern for the life of its residents is commendable. But it might not be possible to island them from the rest of Gurgaon. As the Bhopal gas leak showed three decades ago, an industrial accident is not always contained within factory gates. The disaster management plan prepared by the district administration of Gurgaon in 2013 elaborates:
Gurgaon district has ten major accident hazard (MAH) units. Out of these, nine are automobile units engage in either scooter and car manufacturing or engine parts...Units with mounded propane or LPG installations have a potential threat in terms of vapour cloud explosions...There is also possibility of incidents involving release during unloading operations. The district has industrial model township (IMT) located in Manesar on NH-8 which houses various automobile industries, readymade garments, packaging industries, etc. Udyog Vihar located on NH-8 is an industrial estate in the district and has various electrical, pharmaceutical, auto parts/ components and readymade garments industries. The presence of various industries and factories in the district makes it highly prone to various potential industrial and chemical accidents like fire, spillage, explosion, leakage, etc. during chemical processing, manufacturing, storage, transport and disposal of toxic waste/ hazardous material.

As a professional fireman, what did he think of the absence of a fire station in Manesar and other industrial areas around the city, I asked Sihag. He took a deep breath. “Before I joined DLF," he said, "I was the chief of Gurgaon’s fire department.”

Officially responsible for the safety of all residents and not just of those who live in luxury enclaves, he had written to the chief minister of Haryana, through the office of the municipal commissioner, asking the government to enable the setting up of fire stations in industrial areas.

“Fire stations come under municipal authorities and since industrial areas are outside municipal limits, it is not possible to set up stations through the normal process,” he said. As an alternative, Sihag had proposed that the authority that owns and manages the industrial areas, the Haryana State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation, build the fire station and then outsource its management to his department.

About Rs 20 crore would be enough to build a fire station and stock it with equipment, he said, while the annual running costs would come to Rs 2.5 crore. Not a formidable expenditure for an industrial enclave which, according to a 2013 Business Standard report, posted a turnover of $15 billion per annum.

And yet, three decades after the first factories came up in Manesar, speaking with Scroll on phone, Bhag Mal, an assistant general manager of HSIIDC, maintained that a fire station for the area was still “under active consideration”.

A manager of an automobile company, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the industry had unsuccessfully petitioned HSIIDC several times for a fire station. Two of the largest companies of the area, Maruti Suzuki and Honda, have created their own backup safety infrastructure. But according to Sihag, the companies' fire tenders were too small to tackle a serious fire.

Why didn't the companies come together to collectively fund a fire station?

“It isn’t just about setting up a fire station," said Vikas Gupta, the secretary of the Manesar Industries Welfare Association, "It would be hard for us to run it collectively. And surely it is the responsibility of the government to provide us basic infrastructure.”

Sihag, the veteran fire-fighter, was careful in his criticism of the government. Choosing his words thoughtfully, he said it was hard to understand why the planners of industrial areas could budget for a police station but not a fire station. After all, industrial fires could claim more than just the lives of workers.

This is the second part in a series on how industrial safety continues to be compromised in India. Read all parts here.