On Sunday afternoon, 15-year-old Aftab Alam jostled with the crowds outside Anaj Mandi in Old Delhi, waiting to hear about the whereabouts of his friend Mohammad Taukir. “We used to play cricket together on Sundays,” Alam said.

Anaj Mandi is a commercial complex where old grocery stores have been overtaken by factories. Taukir, 22, lived and worked inside a paper factory here that caught fire around 5.20 am on Sunday morning. The fire started on the second floor and spread to the four-storey building from where a number of small manufacturing units functioned, fire officials said.

Forty-three people perished in the fire, while twenty others were rescued and taken to nearby government hospitals.

Atul Garg, chief fire officer of Delhi Fire Services, told Scroll.in that a short circuit could have caused the fire. “It is a place where people are living, working and cooking,” he said. “That entire area is vulnerable and half of Delhi is like this.” Garg added that the factories functioning from Anaj Mandi did not have a no-objection certificate from the fire department.

The police have filed a First Information Report against the owner of the factory.

Entrance to factories inside Anaj Mandi was barricaded by police who conducted rescue searches. (Photo credit: Vijayta Lalwani)

‘Nobody has fire licences’

Anaj Mandi is situated next to Filmistan Cinema on Rani Jhansi Road in Old Delhi. Residents said there are around 100 factories working from the area that manufacture items like paper boxes, toys, plastic items and bags. The area is also packed with furniture stores, butcheries and tyre shops.

Thick, tangled wires were knotted around wooden poles and drooped above the buildings. Gulfam Qureshi, a 52-year-old resident of the area said it was a common sight to see wires spark.

“Anaj Mandi got its name because it was a place to sell provisions and groceries,” he said. The factories started to function around 15 years ago, but the owners did not bother to get fire licences, he claimed.

“We all know how licences work in India,” said Qureshi. “I can open a factory without one very easily. There are no safety provisions here. The area is so crammed. I am very scared to live here. God knows it will explode one day.”

Another resident also echoed similar concerns. “This was a residential area and all these units are illegal,” said Wafa-ur-Rahman, a 42-year-old resident of Chimney Mill, a narrow settlement situated next to Anaj Mandi.

Inside the narrow lanes of Chimney Mill, stacks of tyres were piled up. Rahman said that this too could be a cause for concern. “The wiring in these factories must be very old but for us the worry is that almost every shop has a godown of tyres. If that catches fire that it cannot be stopped,” he said.

Sixty-year-old Kailash Chand Gupta, who has been running a grocery shop for 35 years, barely 200 metres away from the factory that caught fire, said this was the first blaze to erupt in the area. “Short circuits are common here but this incident is very big,” he said. “It could have been because the electricity load was too much on the factory.”

Inside Chimney Mill, stacks of tyres were piled along the lanes. (Photo credit: Vijayta Lalwani)

Poor working conditions

Anaj Mandi began to attract factories because its rents were lower than industrial areas and it offered proximity to wholesale markets like Sadar Bazar, said factory owners who gathered in the area on Sunday to take stock of their units.

They admitted their units did not have licences from the fire department.

“These are very small factories that hire mostly contract workers,” said one factory owner who did not want to be identified.

Most of the workers come from states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. They live in the factory premises and work for a monthly salary between Rs 8,000 to Rs 10,000. “One factory would have between five to 10 workers,” said a factory owner whose unit manufactures leather bags.

The workers who stood by watching the flames blamed the owners for putting their lives at risk.

Shah Rukh Ansari, 22, who works in a plastic factory in Anaj Mandi, came to Delhi from Amroha, Uttar Pradesh, around four years ago.

“Can you see all these overhead wires?” he said pointing to the wires hanging above the entrance to Anaj Mandi. “There is not even a single fire extinguisher in the factory for us to douse fire.”

Ansari also alleged that most of the factories hired children to work. “We have all left our families and come but Rs 10 lakh [the compensation announced by Delhi government for those killed] cannot be the price of our lives,” he said. “I am getting calls from my home to go back.”

Another worker who shares an apartment with three others in Anaj Mandi alleged that factory owners locked up their workers. “This is why the workers could not escape once the fire started,” said MD Muzamil, an 18-year-old who came to Delhi from Madhubani district in Bihar around three months back to learn embroidery work.

Said Ansari” “We do not know who these workers are who died but they could be people we know.”

In search of family

At Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital, one of the hospitals where those rescued from the fire were taken, anxious relatives scanned the list of the dead and injured.

North Delhi resident Jahana Khatun came to the hospital to look for her brother Mohammad Shakir, who worked in the paper factory that caught fire. “We have been looking for him since morning,” she said.

The family hailed from Madhubani district, Bihar. Shakir had been working in factories in Anaj Mandi for seven years.

“I spoke to him a week ago but I called again today morning and someone else picked up and told us we have to come to the hospital,” said Khatun.

Forty-year-old Shakeel Ahmed, a resident of South East Delhi’s Badarpur, said he got a call from his family in Muzaffarpur, Bihar, asking him to look for a relative. He turned out to Taukir, the young worker who played cricket in the neighbourhood.

“I am Taukir’s cousin,” Ahmed nervously said. “Police officials have not told me anything about whether he is dead or injured.”