The Big Story:

India’s news organisations spent days covering the deaths of 14 people because of a fast-spreading fire at a posh pub in Mumbai’s Kamala Mills complex last December. Hours of news debates asked the question whether our urban spaces have grown out of control with little regard to safety. But the deaths of 17 workers at a factory unit in Delhi’s Bawana industrial area, also due to fire, are as damning even if they do not end up receiving as much attention.

Like the Saki Naka fire in Mumbai earlier in December, the Bawana fire took place in a small factory unit whose owners had no regard for regulations or the safety of the workers, who were mostly migrant labourers. The fire began on the first floor of the factory and spread quickly, while the workers had to grapple with the fact that there were only two fire extinguishers in the area and just one exit. Two workers even had to jump off a balcony in hopes of escaping. Ultimately the fire took 17 lives, including that of 10 women.

Authorities later discovered that the factory was illegally storing and packing firecrackers, and that the workers in this case had been asked to work overtime despite it being past working hours. The unit had officially been registered as a plastic factory, but according to reports, its owner had started stocking firecrackers and paying workers to package them just three weeks prior to the blaze.

The irony is that in some ways places like Bawana were meant to prevent issues like this. According to an Indian Express report, the Supreme Court had ordered authorities 22 years ago to find an alternate space for Delhi’s industries rather than have them spread in residential areas, which led to the setting up of the Bawana Industrial Area. But over time, the sudden proliferation of lightly regulated units in what had previously been a village led to even more concerns, made worse by the fact that being further away from central Delhi there was much less monitoring of what went on in the neighbourhood.

As Bawana has shown, the problems of rapid urbanisation cannot be solved by simply shifting all the potential hazards into another corner of a city where the relatively well-off will not be in danger. Indeed, those who have had to make Bawana their homes, migrant workers for the most part, are also the most vulnerable. It is incumbent on authorities who plan and regulate our cities to carefully examine why even a designated industrial area has turned into a massive tinderbox and arrive at solutions that make Indian lives less cheap than they appear to be.

The Big Scroll

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Editor: Sujit Lad | Camera: Venkataraghavan Rajagopalan | Graphics: Anmol Kanojia and Makrand Sanghvi