Delhi’s Alipur Factory Fire Claims Ten Workers’ Lives: Administrative Negligence or Social Murder?

May 15, 2024 0 By Yatharth

When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results … knowing in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live – forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence – knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder, murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.

Friedrich Engels (Condition of the Working Class in England, 1845)


On the 15th of February, 2024, a massive fire broke out in a paint manufacturing unit in north Delhi’s Alipur. The fire claimed the lives of all 11 people inside at the time. This includes 10 factory workers (helpers and staff) and the owner, Ashok Jain.[1] Being situated in a residential area, the factory had been operating illegally since the past two decades.

The police suggest that the initial spark may have been triggered by welding work that was taking place inside the premises at the time. The large amount of flammable liquids present on site meant that the factory quickly went up in flames, also causing a series of ‘blasts’ in which drums filled with paint and other chemical substances exploded. The police FIR mentions that the fire took place near the front of the factory. Since there was no separate exit, it became impossible for the people trapped inside to escape.

The fire also spread to around 15 other properties in the area, among which, at least 7 were severely burned. The fire is reported to have begun around 5:30 pm and around 22 fire service trucks arrived 45 mins later. It took them around 12 hours to put out the fire. During this time, the fire travelled to other homes by way of drains in which paint thinner and waste chemicals from the factory were regularly discharged. 3 locals and 1 police officer were injured and hospitalised. None of them sustained significant injuries and were discharged the next day.

Following the disaster, the police have arrested the co-owner, Akhil Jain, and the landlady, Raj Rani, under section 304 of the Indian Penal Code (culpable homicide not amounting to murder). On the 16th of February, Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, made a visit to the site and announced an ex-gratia compensation amount of 10 lakh to the families of the deceased and 2 lakh to those who sustained major injuries. 

On the 19th of February, representatives from six trade unions and workers organisations — Inqlabi Mazdoor Kendra, IFTU (Sarwahara), Mazdoor Ekta Kendra, TUCI, AIFTU (New), and Workers’ Unity — visited Alipur to gather first-hand observations and speak to locals who had witnessed or been impacted by the fire incident. A second visit was made on the 21st of February by a smaller group, with the intention of further probing into local narratives around the disaster. The following report has been compiled using a mixture of observations and conversations on site, as well as media reports and information present in the police FIR.

Ground Observations

The paint factory, called ‘Om Sons Paint and Chemicals’, was located in a narrow bylane off Dayal market in Alipur. When we arrived on the afternoon of the 19th, a small crowd of people were gathered there. They watched on as a JCB slowly shifted around piles of charred debris. The place where the factory once stood was not more than 100 gaj (approx. 900 sq ft). It was completely gutted and no infrastructure remained. Another JCB was stationed inside, surrounded by heaps of rubble in which the odd splashes of bright paint and pots of paint thinner were visible. A strong smell of chemicals filled the air. The buildings surrounding the factory were also severely burned. Among them was a drug rehabilitation centre called Turning Point, as well as two other commercial establishments – a hair salon and a glass shop. The fire had also travelled to residential blocks around the corner by way of local drains. These houses were visibly blackened but not as severely damaged. People continued to live inside them.

Initially, the people we encountered on site were reluctant to engage with us. These were mostly local residents and shop vendors from the surrounding area. In recounting the incident, they placed emphasis on the large crowd that had assembled on the street during the fire, in which onlookers were said to be more engaged in taking videos than participating in rescue efforts. In his anger, one man whose home had been damaged by the fire exclaimed, “aaj kal mobile his sabse bada dushman hai!”. People also complained about the large influx of reporters, YouTubers and political figures that had been frequenting the area since the fire. This frustration also extended to the Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal’s visit, which people saw as a media opportunity more than an attempt to address the loss generated by the fire. Turning to his friend, the same man said: “agar uss din hum media ko aane se rok dete, to kasam se, Kejriwal ko pata hi nahi hota ki Alipur hai kahan.”

However, if the loss of lives are what made Alipur suddenly visible to the wider state and public, it is significant that there was barely any mention of these lives during our site visits. Whilst the statements of middle-class residents expressed anger at the mediatisation of the fire and the general ‘nuksaan’ borne by people who suffered property damage, there was a resounding silence around the workers who lost their lives. In the FIR, it is mentioned that the majority of them originated from Uttar Pradesh. Like other workers in the area, it is likely that they were living in Alipur on rent, mostly without their families. We met only one or two shop vendors who said they used to interact with the workers during their lunch break. Nobody we spoke to knew them on a personal level.

As per people’s recollection, it took 45 mins to an hour for the fire service to arrive. Their entry was impeded by the crowd that had gathered in the area. In the initial outbreak of the fire, people said it was mostly neighbours who rescued one another. Workers from Turning Point NGO described how the building immediately caught fire owing to the force of the flames from the factory. Following this, they heard a series of blasts in which paint and/or chemical-filled drums exploded. The workers managed to escape by climbing to the top of the building from where the neighbours cut through a metal wire and helped them onto their roof. One of them fainted and was hospitalised. Two women who lived next door (mother and daughter) also fainted and were hospitalised. They were rescued by other neighbours who broke into their house to retrieve them. All three have recovered and were discharged from hospital the following day.

As per the police chargesheet, the factory had been in operation for the last 20 years. Alongside paint manufacturing and paint packaging, an Indian Express article states that the welding of steel racks was also taking place inside the unit. Yet, many people we spoke to relayed that, prior to the fire, they had little knowledge of what was being produced inside – “uska gate kabhi nahi khulta tha, jab maal aata tha, tab hi khulta tha,” relayed one chai seller. Through Google maps, we also found an earlier image of the building (captured in 2022) which shows that it lacked any clear signage through which it might be identified as an industrial unit. The height of its front gate also obstructed any view inside. Another Indian Express article, however, states that some local residents had submitted a complaint to local authorities two years prior to the fire, raising the issue of local drains being clogged up with chemicals from the factory.

Following CM Arvind Kejriwal’s visit to the area, a compensatory amount of Rs. 10 lakh for the families of the deceased and 2 lakh for those sustaining ‘major injuries’ was published across media channels. It was added that those who had suffered property damage could also claim compensation as per government guidelines. However, everyone that we spoke to expressed pessimism and a general lack of faith in such promises. People’s past experiences with the state bureaucracy, where they had had to wait years, sometimes even generations, to receive compensation, played a significant role here. Furthermore, the time and effort required on part of the claimant was also a major deterrent – “baar baar office ke chakkar kaatne padenge,” said the man who used to run the hair salon that had been destroyed in the fire. Though he had submitted an application for compensation to the district magistrate, he was unsure whether his time might be better spent working to recover immediate losses on his own.

Whilst walking around Alipur, we found many other industrial units, similarly nested between residential areas. People informed us that the production of plastic and jute bags was the predominant industrial activity in the area. Though the majority said they were not aware of any other similarly hazardous industry, one group of women we encountered drew our attention to a building located just behind their galli. They said it regularly emitted black fumes and believed its waste products were being released into local drains, turning the water green and foul smelling. Following the recent fire, one woman had rounded up a larger group to investigate what was inside. She vocalised a sense of caution about doing so, owing to the fact that she was Muslim and had recently migrated from UP. In the videos that the women had captured inside, several drums filled with paint and possibly other liquids were visible. The women feared that “uss main aag lagegi to sabse pehle hamare ghar hi jalenge”, and speculated that the spread of such a fire would be aided by the plastic warehouses in the locality.

Interaction with local police

On our first visit to the Alipur police station, we met with SHO, Shailendra Kumar Sharma who had only been stationed in Alipur for a couple of months. He was present on the day of the fire, accompanied by the ACP and police constable Karamveer. As a course of action, the SHO said that the ‘culprits’ of the disaster (i.e. the factory’s co-owner, Akhil Jain, and the landlady, Raj Rani) had already been arrested. Highlighting the frequency of industrial disasters in Delhi, people in our group pressed the question of how the police intended to prevent such disasters from taking place again. To this, the SHO responded that a door-to-door audit of the area would be called and any factory found to be operating illegally – i.e. not in accordance with legal guidelines – would be sealed. However, we received no clarification on the question of how the paint factory had been able to operate in a residential area for over two decades in the first place, that too, being situated in such close proximity to the police station and despite the complaints issued against it by local residents. Towards the end of our discussion, we took a copy of the police investigation status report and the FIR number.

On our second visit to Alipur, we returned to the police station to speak to police constable Karamveer who had been hospitalised following the fire. Karamveer had received some coverage in local newspapers for his rescue efforts in which it is claimed that he saved the lives of 19 people during the fire. Having been stationed in Alipur for the last two years, Karamveer said that he had seen many instances of industrial fire, but this was the first in which so many lives were lost. He believed that the MCD played a large role in facilitating the illegal functioning of factories – either by giving them a licence despite the hazardous nature of their work, or by permitting their functioning without a licence. However, he did not have much to say on the role of the police in their regulation. While discussing industries in Delhi more broadly, Karamveer also commented that the paint factory was not a proper ‘company’ but a ‘simple building’ in which some work was being carried out. This distinction, though technically inaccurate, reveals how smaller scale, informal industrial operations are commonly perceived – and perhaps how they are also able to more easily slip under the radar. 

Source: Ease of Doing Violations, 2022, by Collective


From our ground observations, it became apparent that the variation in responses to the fire and ideas of culpability in its aftermath are also reflective of different class positionings in the area. As part of this, expressions of anger and frustration reflected what was at stake for different groups. Among property owners near the site of the fire, there was a hesitancy to assign blame to either the owner of the factory or state actors who might have been complicit in its functioning. Anger was instead, directed at the common public, the media and politicians for their publicity-seeking behaviour. Discussions around the fire were also mostly centred around ‘nuksaan’ in terms of financial loss rather than the loss of working-class lives. The death of the owner was, however, brought up on several occasions. Unlike the workers who were subject to the everyday risk of fire, the owner had just happened to be there on the day of the fire. His death was therefore seen as exceptional, whilst that of the workers was more quickly normalised.

Whilst there is nothing ‘normal’ about the number of working-class deaths in industrial workplaces, part of their normalisation stems from just how frequently we read and hear about them. For instance, just days after the fire in Alipur, a fire in a fireworks factory in the Harda town of Madhya Pradesh also took the lives of 11 workers and left 200 injured. In Alipur’s own Budhpur, an industrial area on its outskirts, a massive fire classified as ‘serious’ by firefighting standards burned several big warehouses to the ground on the morning of the 25th of March. It is perhaps only because workers were off for Holi, that no lives were lost in this blaze. The 2022 Mundka factory fire in Delhi is another recent tragedy claimed the lives of at least 27 (to 60) workers, mostly women, and majorly injured at least 40 others.[2] The successive and repeated nature of such ‘accidents’ raises urgent questions around everyday working conditions within industrial workplaces and the legal and bureaucratic arrangements that facilitate ongoing safety violations.

Section 38 of the Factories Act of 1948 contains detailed provisions for fire prevention within factories employing a minimum of 20 workers (10 in units using electrical power). This covers the requirement for fire exits, the minimum width for access routes and restrictions on the storage of flammable liquids. Yet, in the case of small scale industries such as the Alipur paint factory, owners commonly avoid adhering to these provisions by operating without a licence or not disclosing the real number of workers that are employed. However, rather than attempting to strengthen existing regulations, in 2020, the central government introduced four new Labour Codes that provided further concessions to owners at the expense of worker safety. The Occupational Safety, Health & Working Conditions Code (OSH), which now replaces the former Factories Act, crucially, doubles the minimum number of workers in units to which it is applicable – from 20 to 40 workers (20 in units using electrical power). However, given that 76% of all units in India employ less than 40 workers (as recorded in the Quarterly Employment Survey, January 2022), this excludes a vast share of industries from having to legally adhere to the OSH at all.

Following the fire in Alipur, both the MCD and the Fire Service have declared that the paint factory was ‘illegal’. The police, under the directives of the SDM, has also ordered an investigation to find out whether there are other such industrial units operating on illegal grounds. These appeals to legality, however, are complicated by the fact that state authorities must have been aware and, to some extent, even complicit in the running of the factory. Yet, rather than addressing these structural issues, in the aftermath of such disasters, we often see that the role of the state is reduced to that of providing compensation. While the local residents we spoke to were pessimistic about the outcome of such processes, one might also question whether compensation is a sufficient state response in the first place. As a 2023 article in The Wire highlights, not only is state compensation determined in ‘arbitrary ways’, neither accounting for worker wages nor inflation, on a broader level, it may also direct attention away from the state’s other legal and moral responsibilities. According to data published by the Union Ministry of Labour & Employment, on average, 3 workers lose their lives every day in Indian factories. Between 2017-20, an average of 1109 workers a year died and more than 4000 were injured in registered factories across India. Yet, trade unionists and economists claim that even these figures are a major underestimation, owing to the much greater share of unregistered factories in the country. These staggering statistics highlight the fact that industrial working class deaths are not isolated, ‘one-off’ incidents. Even if they are triggered through chance circumstances, the risk-laden conditions they arise from are far from accidental – rather, they reflect a system of negligence and corruption ‘by design’, which consistently puts working class lives at risk in favour of extending profit margins. Accordingly, the fire that took place in the Alipur paint factory must be seen as part of a larger crisis that is political in nature. Beyond immediate relief measures, systemic solutions must be sought which centre the narrative of the working class who continue to pay for such accidents with their lives.

[1] Names of the workers are – Ram Surat Singh, Brij Kishore, Mira, Pankaj Kumar, Vishal Gaund, Anil Thakur, Shubham, Kripa Shankar, Ram Parvesh Kumar, Harish Chander Yadav.

[2] The Truth published an analytical article on the Mundka fire in its May 2022 issue.