Mundka Fire Tragedy: The New Normal
In Times of Decaying Capitalism

May 30, 2022 1 By Yatharth

V Prajapati

Labour Movement

In yet another manifestation of crisis-ridden capitalism, India witnessed one of the worst man-made industrial disasters claiming lives of more than 27 workers after a fire broke out in a four-storey building in Mundka Industrial Area, West Delhi on May 13 at around 3:30 PM. It is noteworthy that of the 27 who died, 21 were women workers and of the 29 who remained missing, 24 are women. The 12 workers who suffered serious injuries were rushed to Sanjay Gandhi Memorial Hospital for further treatment. It is estimated that more than 100 workers had been working inside the building premises when the fire broke out on the first floor and thereafter engulfed the entire structure. The tragedy is a testament to the precarious and fatal working conditions within informal manufacturing units which invisibilize millions of informal sector workers. It would not be a hyperbole to state that the factories have become nothing short of ‘concentration camps’ with inhumane working conditions and absolute suspension of labor rights framework, an imminent consequence of which is death. The economic situation of the working class has become so grim that despite being aware of the life-risking challenges within the employment, they have no choice but to join the factories on account of the pull of invisible forces of poverty, unemployment and hyper-inflation.

Spread over three floors, the logistics firm Cofe Impex Private Limited indulging in assembling and packaging of electronic equipments such as CCTV cameras, wifi routers and circuit adapters employed more than 150 workers, majority of them being young-aged females. A preliminary investigation into the incident has revealed that the switchboard on the first floor had sparking, following which cardboards and other inflammable material piled up nearby caught fire. The building is reported to have been congested due to storage and assembling units for CCTVs and routers. The factory did not have fire safety measures such as hose reel, water tank, fire detector, fire extinguishers and a second exit as specified under the Safety Manual of the Factories Act (as reported by the Divisional Officers engaged in firefighting operation). Installation of the decorative toughened glass not having a single window which prevented the workers from breaking it off and escaping was in violation of the building bylaws. Unsurprisingly, the factory had been functional for years without a Factory License and a No-objection Certificate from the Fire Department. Moreover, it indulged in illegal use of a commercial space for the purposes of industrial production for years without having ever been scrutinized by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi or Delhi Police. In addition to the scheme of things, the factory unabashedly flouted core compliances under labor law pertaining to minimum wages (as low as 6000 p.m.), overtime, provident fund, employee state insurance and muster rolls containing the records of all workmen. In fact, unfair labor practices such as depriving the workers of their mobile phones during the working hours so that production didn’t get hampered were in full swing. Thus, complicit criminal negligence of the proprietor (Manish Lakra), factory owners (Goel brothers), Municipal Corporation of Delhi, Labour Department, Delhi Police and both Central and State Govts. is the reason underpinning this tragedy.

So far, Delhi’s Tis Hazari Court granted a day’s custody of the accused, who were arrested under IPC Sections 304 (causing death by negligence), 308 (attempt to commit culpable homicide), 120 B (party to criminal conspiracy) and 34 (common intention) by the Police. The NDMC has sought a detailed report, asking the concerned authorities to furnish details on the legality of the said building while the civic body has ordered detailed surveys in zones coming under its jurisdiction for finding out if any prohibited activity is going on in non-conforming areas within 10 days. The Delhi Govt., apart from announcing a compensation of 10 lakhs for the victim’s family and 50,000 for the injured, ordered a magisterial inquiry, also assented to by the Lieutenant Governor. The Central Govt. also announced a relief package of 2 lakhs for the deceased while 50000 for the injured. The NHRC recently issued a notice to the Delhi Govt. asking for a report upon the Mundka Fire incident. It would be a gross mistake to place reliance upon the façade of abovementioned slew of measures which are there to solely distract public attention from the gravity of the incident and paint the various culpable administrative authorities in sympathetic light. The discourse around arrest, remand, survey, inquiry, compensation immediately post tragedy is an attempt to cover up the human cost of significant proportions borne by the working class due to pro-corporate and profit-oriented mindset of the government. That with time lapse, soon it shall be found that the accused would have gotten bail, inquiry and fact-finding committees would have turned defunct, the process of awarding of compensation would have become too cumbersome that none of the victims’ families would dare to fall into its trap and of course the labor departments/municipalities would comfortably take a back seat and be a spectator until a new crisis of higher momentum wrecks the national capital. As history as shown us, expectations of a stronger labour administration geared towards minimizing occupational hazards and casualties and carrying out timely inspections, remain confined to the bare acts, far from being a social reality.

Qualitative Glance Into The Minds Of Survivors And Kins Of The Deceased

The interviews with the survivors and the closed ones of the deceased worker gave us important findings. They explained how the system remains lackadaisical and passive in its approach until an incident occurs and once an incident comes up, all of a sudden, the numbers of civil defence, fire department, administrative officials, media persons, journalists, lawyers, civil society intellectuals swell up giving an impression that it is they who are the “frontline warriors”. That instant announcements about arrests, FIRs and compensation are only meant for pacifying rage, anguish and demands seeking early stringent action so that public attention over quantum of damage to life can be realigned. The kins, weeping uncontrollably, told how the compensation by the State couldn’t get their loved ones back. That it was too meagre an amount to restore normalcy in their lives, however, the mainstream media would paint it in a philanthropic fashion for inviting applauses for the dispensation. They told how they did not have any faith upon the media persons as they are there to mint money out of the sorrow and grief the workers’ families have to undergo. That they are least bothered about increasing the outreach of such tragedy to the common masses, seeking accountability from the government or gathering monetary-legal- social support for them.

There was frustration and anger against the Fire and Police officials who reached an hour late to the spot, thereby leaving the victims in a helpless state with dependency solely upon help from local inhabitants (a crane operator fortunately passing through the area, came to help out the trapped workers before the fire tenders could arrive and ended up saving about 50 lives). Naturally, a lot many lives could have been saved had the time lapse between communication and action been lesser. Madhu’s (deceased) mother-in-law Asha, a resident of Muzaffarpur regretfully told how due to absence of any mode of communication (due to the malpractice of deposition of phones with the security guard), she could not get information about the fire on time and hence, numerous people like her could not take necessary immediate steps.

They mentioned how they could get a sense of closure only through performance of the last rites but the pitiable state of charred remains stuffed along with the remains of other bodies in a sac put them in a state of mental and emotional turmoil. Additionally, they would get calls from the hospital and police station for identification or for submitting samples of blood relatives for DNA profiling which would aggravate their grief. One of the newspaper reports stated the lines by a family member- ‘They brought the bodies in a manner like they collected some garbage. Do they think that just because they are dead, they do not have any dignity left?’

Asha spoke about the malicious and selfish attitude of the proprietor of the building who locked the doors to his house through which the workers could have gone to the terrace and saved themselves. Additionally, the neighbouring factory owner also prohibited the workers from breaking the wall adjoining Cofe Impex as it would count as damage to his property. Thick, black smoke reduced visibility significantly and asphyxiated victims to death. She asked the question- “How are the factory owners able to run scot-free, unharmed by the tragedy as well as by the criminal consequences while the workers end up losing their lives for 6000?”

Mother-in-law and children of deceased worker Madhu.

Juicy, a survivor spoke of how absence of fire alarms, lack of initiative by the security guard to vacate the premises and the inaction by the government was to be blamed for. The other neighbouring working class women, gathered at the site of interview narrated the indispensable role a women worker has in a family. Besides being the spine, for some families she is also the sole breadwinner. Countless young toddlers and children must be unaware of the loss they have suffered. Asha expressed how her son’s salary wasn’t enough for all the basic expenses to be incurred on rent, electricity and water charges groceries, education, health and miscellaneous ones, so Madhu decided to work for her two children for 6500 per month unaware of the cost her children might have to suffer in future. Inflation coupled with unemployment and job crisis, especially post pandemic has pushed out women outside of their homes to eke out a living in precarious set ups.

Joint Protest by revolutionary workers’ orgs. at Delhi Secretariat and CTUs at Labour Minister Residence

A brief conversation with the forensic team only gave us the information that all samples had been collected from the site and all human remains had been cleared up. When asked about a scientific explanation regarding the form in which remains would be found after being exposed to high temperatures (i.e. would the bones be found which would help in determining the count of the dead), they refused to answer.

Plight Of The Women Workers In The Informal Industrial Sector

As a matter of fact, way more than 30 workers are estimated to have been swallowed by the fire. Women workers form an essential component in the production processes within the informal sector. However, their labor participation rate has declined sharply over time with Delhi having one of the lowest (14.5% for age 15 and above as compared to 28.7% all India in 2019-20). Post pandemic, female workforce[1] (particularly in the 20s or 30s) had to deal with the added burden of looking for an employment amidst the job crisis. In order to control the ordeal, they unwillingly had to join the labor market for taking up low-paid jobs with strenuous working hours. Due to the intersection of being a migrant worker, coming from poor economic status and being a female, they ended up being the most exploited of the lot with wages as low as 5000 to 6000. The wages were low also because jobs which did not require enough skill (i.e. mental faculties even though physical faculties may be overused) like helpers. Such jobs were often taken up by women. Undignified life which provided income only to run for the next two-three days was what the congested, dusty, shady and stingy sweatshops with no safety equipments had to offer. The gradual withdrawal of the women workers from the labour market due to absence of leaves including maternity leave, longer working hours and low pay scale alongside housework and care is a sign of how degrading and poor the working conditions have become.

Crucial Statistics And The Gory Picture Of Parasitic Capitalist System

The Mundka Fire Tragedy is not the first incident of a high quantum that Delhi is faced with.  In the past, the capital has been witness to horrific incidents of similar nature in the industrial areas of Narela, Bawana, Seelampur, Kirti Nagar, Nangloi, Udyog Nagar, Peeragarhi, Okhla, Nand Nagri and Rani Jhansi Road yet the situation is only worsening with every passing day. The increase in frequency of such incidents only goes on to indicate the clear intent of the government behind its tall claims of development, growth, Amrit Mahotsav, Acche Din come with a human cost, which it is least bothered about. News of workplace accidents and deaths come up each day – miners getting buried in the illegal coalmine, workers getting buried in a railway tunnel during repair work, explosion in chemical or explosives factory, collapse of under-construction buildings and the list doesn’t end, however the attention gets only attracted to a miniscule portion of news that makes it to the headlines purely because of the catastrophic figures of those dead and injured.

The functional logic behind private enterprise is profit which the capitalists seek to increase by minimizing expenditure on variable costs to the maximum extent possible. Since the expenditure on raw materials, machinery, infrastructure is static in the sense that it cannot be reduced, the brunt of the reduction is invariably done on expenses incurred on labour.[2] Companies find payment of compensation in case of accidents/deaths as profitable when compared to the costs it would otherwise incur in investing for ensuring occupational safety at workplace. Moreover, the gluttony of the unemployed masses also gives it the confidence to chuck out workers who demand for better working conditions and take in even cheaper labor. In one of the surveys, it was found that Indian employers pay more attention to corrective maintenance (i.e. replacement of machinery when complete breakdown occurs) relative to preventive maintenance where scheduled maintenance of machines and equipment is undertaken at regular intervals to ‘avoid’ breakdowns. Therefore, on one hand, we see employers showing reluctance in incurring preventive costs while on the other hand, we find the labor administration pressurized under pro-employer policies for allowing leeway to the employers from strict sanctions and regulatory controls.[3] This way, it can be said that the contradiction between capital and labour has sharpened to this extent that income generation has to be done at the cost of mass murder/genocide of working class which is left with absolutely no remedy within the façade of ‘labor and constitutional rights’ framework. There lies a direct correlation between good performance on the Ease of Doing Business Index and poor performance on say the Hunger Index, Poverty Index, Unemployment and Labor Participation Index, Freedom of the Press Index etc. A report by The Wire[4] states that India jumped from 130th position (2016) to 63rd in a matter of 3 years and ‘every year whenever India tops the higher rank on EDB, our global ranking point estimate slips towards the bottom quartile in all global parameters such as hunger, peace, slavery, labor and workers’ rights indices on the lowest scale.[5]The idea is to allow complete freedom to the businesses to get away with the rigors of labor law for maximization of profit in the age of monopoly capitalism. The government aids the process by either repealing earlier laws, bringing in new anti-worker legislations, weakening labor departments and courts, requiring factual proof beyond reasonable doubt for implicating top brass of the factory management (where ‘vicarious liability’ should have been the standard) and increasing contractualization of the workforce. Naturally, the impact upon working class in the present times as well as in the times to come will be draconian and will pave the ground for class struggle. The statistics below are crucial in underlining the shocking proportions of fatalities.

According to Indian Labour Statistics, a rising trend has been noticed in the number of fatal injuries across the country every year from 1990 to 2014. Last year itself (2021), the Union Labour Ministry informed the Parliament that at least 6500 employees died on duty at factories, ports, mines and construction sites with over 80% of the fatalities reported in factory settings between 2014 and 2018. A jump of 20% was seen in factory deaths between 2017 and 2018. According to the estimates[6] published by a Geneva based IndustriAll Global Union, an average of seven industrial accidents per month were reported across the country in 2021. Between 2014 and 2017, Delhi recorded a total of 1529 industrial accidents[7], the highest in the country during the given period. There is only one factory inspector per 506 factories. India is also highly under-resourced in terms of fire stations where it has less than 3000 fire stations against a required 8559 and understaffed by nearly 6,00,000 personnel.

Problems Underlying The Existing Labor Laws And The Occupational Safety, Health And Working Conditions Code, The Last Nail In The Coffin Of Labor Rights

The Factories Act of 1948 is the principal legislation governing working conditions and safety measures for the registered workers. Its’ biggest drawback is the fact that it applies only to a miniscule population of workers as it is applicable only in factories employing ten or more workers. Reports have it that 172 million workers i.e. 79.85% work in establishments having less than nine workers and 20.1 million workers are employed in establishments having more than 10 and less than 49 workers. Only 17.6 million i.e. 8% work in establishments with more than 100 workers. Thus, due to the constrictive approach of the legislation (unaware of ground reality) about 80% of the total workforce in informal industrial sector who may be working in hazardous factories and engaged in performing hazardous processes yet absolutely excluded from the purview of occupational safety and health centric laws![8] Chapter IV A of the Factories Act dealing with hazardous process containing sections allowing Site Appraisal Committee, disclosure of information regarding dangers including health hazards, power of the Central Govt. in appointment of Inquiry Committees, right of the workers to be warned about imminent danger among others thus ends up being applicable to a very small portion of factories, however, its implementation remains doubtful.

The overhauling of the previous regime of hard-earned labor laws by the rolling in of the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code which is awaiting formation of rules by different states for its implementation. It is important to take note of the blatantly anti-worker provisions. The Inspector-cum-Facilitator (ICF) is supposed to be making inquiries only in cases of death within 2 months as opposed to a month (Section 88(2) of Factories Act, 1948. The general inspection system has been weakened through introduction of ‘web-based inspections’ thereby doing away with physical inspections without any prior notice and as frequently as possible. Thus, companies will be able to self-certify themselves. It remains the same as Factories Act in terms of its applicability in establishments with only 10 or more workers, the rationale of which is ‘efficiency in inspection’. The matters are deplorable to the extent that labour inspections are hardly done in those limited proportion of factories also. The principle of fines and not criminal proceedings goes on to provide immense ease for the employer to exploit. The process of obtaining compensation has been intentionally made tedious to the extent that it would take years for the relief order to come out due to bureaucracy and red tapism in labor departments. In exceptional cases of death from an industrial accident reaching the conviction stage, the owner comes to be booked under 304(A), a bailable offence.[9] Lastly, the code infringes upon the right to appeal of an aggrieved worker due to industrial accident/employment dispute through a writ petition before the relevant High Court, thereby ensuring longer pendency of labor disputes and delayed (or denied) justice for the victimised.

Protests In Delhi Against The Mundka Fire Tragedy

Protests by IFTU(S) and SSK at Mundka and Mayapuri

Delhi saw various protest demonstrations promptly erupt after the tragic fire incident in Munka. Indian Federation of Trade Unions (Sarwahara)’s Delhi Unit and Shramik Sahyog Kendra’s Mayapuri Committee organized a protest demonstration on 17th of May, at a labor chowk in the interior part of the Mundka Industrial Area. Comrades Ram Dayal, Vind Vyas, Sudhir, Sandeep, Dilip Mandal, Nagina, Narayan and Vidushi actively organized the mass meeting and demonstration by interacting with the workers on the rampant increase in occupational murders and snatching away of the labor rights regime in the background of rising unemployment, poverty, inflation, crime rate, malnutrition, hunger and a crashing economy, amidst powerful sloganeering. The workers curiously listened about the incident, its causes linked with the capitalist crisis and the historic task that lies upon their shoulder for building an exploitation free society. Pamphlets were also distributed.

Joint protests by revolutionary workers’ orgs. at Delhi Secretariat and CTUs at Labour Minister Residence.

A similar protest demonstration on the Mundka Fire Tragedy was organized by SSK in Mayapuri Industrial Area also on 22nd May. Apart from this, comrade Ashu, Sudhir and Vidushi from IFTU(S) went for a factual inquiry in Mundka as well as Sanjay Gandhi Memorial Hospital to have a perspective on the human cost of the incident and the response of the state machinery.

A Joint protest demonstration by revolutionary trade unions and workers’ organisations was also held on 17th of May at the Delhi Secretariat which saw participation of AIFTU (New), Delhi Peoples’ Forum, IFTU, Inqlabi Mazdoor Kendra, Inquilabi Mazdoor Sangathan, Lokpaksh, Mazdoor Ekta Committee, Mazdoor Ekta Kendra, Mazdoor Sahyog Kendra and Pragatisheel Mahila Ekta Kendra. As part of the protest, a delegation of three comrades namely Munna Prasad, Rajesh and Vidushi went for handing over the Memorandum to the Officer on Special Duty to the Delhi’s Deputy Chief/Labour Minister, listing out demands of increased compensation (₹50 lakh), stringent punishment for the owners and officials, strict implementation of labour laws etc. A similar protest demonstration was held on the same day in the morning jointly by the Central Trade Unions along with IFTU, ICTU and MEC at the residence of Delhi’s Labour and Deputy Chief Minister.[Author is a Delhi-based trade union activist associated with IFTU (Sarwahara) and Shramik Sahyog Kendra.]