On Monday afternoon, Mirza Naseem, who hails from Uttar Pradesh, kept asking God to forgive him for his decision to bring his 17-year-old son Naim Mirza to Mumbai three months ago. Early that morning, Naim Mirza was killed as the snack factory in which he worked and slept caught fire. By the end of the day, 11 other bodies of his fellow workers had been extracted from the premises of Bhanu Farsan in Sakinaka, a neighbourhood in the suburb of Andheri.
Naim Mirza had come to the city, hoping to stay for a few months and earn enough money to finance his school education. “He had got admission in Class 9,” said Mirza Naseem whose eyes were bloodshot from his crying. “We were going through a financial crisis and decided that if my son worked for a few months, there would be some stability.”
Mirza Naseem works in a similar factory in Chembur, a suburb in eastern Mumbai. The father and son would meet only once a month as they did not want to waste money on travel. “I spoke to him last night and he was happy and looking forward to going back and appearing for his exams,” said Naseem.
Of the 12 people who were killed in the fire, the Mumbai police were able to establish the identities of only 11 people on Monday. Most of them hailed from Uttar Pradesh and had come to Mumbai seeking better jobs. A preliminary investigation by the hospital the victims were taken to concluded that they died of smoke inhalation. The autopsy reports are yet to come in. The cause of the fire is also yet to be ascertained.
Illegal business, indifferent authorities
Municipal authorities said that Bhanu Farsan, a wholesale snacks shop and snacks manufacturing unit, did not have all the required permissions to operate. It was missing clearances, among others, from the health, fire, and food and drug administration departments. “It is an illegal establishment,” said Ajit Kumar Ambi, assistant commissioner, L ward, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.
However, Bhanu Farsan had obtained its Shops and Establishment Act registration. Ambi said that when the municipality registers a shop under this Act, it does not check whether it has all the other required permissions “At the time of registration, the owner declared that five employees will be working in the establishment,” he said.
But the owners of shops near Bhanu Farsan said that at least 15 to 20 people worked there at any given time.
The Mumbai police said that there were 13 people on the premises of the unit when the fire broke out. The sole survivor, Akhilesh Tiwari, said that he saved himself by jumping from a loft. He fractured both his legs. “When I woke up there was smoke all round and I just jumped,” said Tiwari. But his older brother, Manish Tiwari, was killed in the fire.
Tiwari confirmed that the shop’s employees would sleep in the loft inside the unit, near diesel stoves, and inflammable material like cooking oil and wooden furniture.
The fire department said that the loft was built illegally. “The labourers were stuck in the loft and were unable to run out,” an official said. The unit did not comply with fire safety norms. It is unclear if the permission of the fire department was sought before the unit was set up.
Labour rights activist Milind Ranade, the general secretary of the Kachra Vahtuk Shramik Sangh, said that the informal sector worked on the model of earning profits with the welfare of workers given low priority. “There is no labour welfare in the minds of the employers,” he said. “The labourers actually think that the employer is doing good to them by letting them stay on the premises, when the employer is actually using them as security [guards].”
Establishments like Bhanu Farsan are governed by several legislations. “The problem is not the absence of a law but the implementation,” said Ranade. “If the authorities [such as the municipal body] looked for violations, such incidents could be averted instead of fingers being pointed at one another once lives are lost.”
The Sakinaka police station has registered an accidental death report. “The employer is being questioned for negligence,” said Navin Reddy, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Zone 10, Mumbai.
Disaster waiting to happen
Though Ambi confirmed that employees are not allowed to live inside the premises of such units, several employees, mostly migrant labourers, live in the kind of unsafe conditions the 12 labourers had been trapped in.
Arjun Gupta works in a similar wholesale shop in Kalyan, in Thane district, near Mumbai. He lost his younger brother, Ram Naresh Gupta, in the fire. Gupta, who is from Siddharthnagar district in Uttar Pradesh, had brought the 19-year-old to Mumbai about six months ago.
Gupta said that he will take his brother’s body home for the last rites but will have to return to Mumbai. “I do not have any option,” he said. “There are no job opportunities in my state. I will have to come back and continue working.”
To support their large family back home, Gupta had recently brought his youngest brother, Dilip Gupta, to work in Mumbai. “He will also have to work and live in the karkhana [factory],” he said. “We try to save as much money as possible to send back home.”