For Anaj Mandi workers, a death foretold
“This could have happened to any of us. There are no fire safety arrangements in the buildings. But what can a worker do? It is a question of survival in bad times,” said Mohammad Farhaan, as he walked away from a gathering of men outside Anaj Mandi lane in north Delhi’s Rani Jhansi Road area on Sunday morning.
Hours ago, a major blaze at an ‘illegal’ factory in the area had left at least 43 people dead and more than 20 people injured.
By 10am, hundreds of locals had swarmed the area. While fire fighters and police teams hurriedly moved in an out of lanes, that had been put out of bounds for pedestrians, the crowd looked on eagerly.
Most of the men staring at the frantic rescue work from the crowd, were migrant workers employed in neighbouring factories.
In the absence of the minimum fire safety arrangements at their workplaces, Sunday’s fire mishap, they said, was like chronicles of a death foretold.
“The economy is in a bad shape. A regular job here is a privilege,” said Naresh Kumar, a migrant worker who resides in Anaj Mandi and works as a daily wage labourer. He further said, “A factory job at least ensures a regular pay even if it is less than the stipulated minimum wages. There are no options. I would take up any job, without bothering if the workplace has any fire safety arrangement.”
Anaj Mandi is located in the periphery of the Walled City. It derives its name from a wholesale market of foodgrains that used to exist here till around 20 years ago. The serpentine lanes in the locality connect Rani Jhansi Road with Sadar Bazar and Model Basti, adjacent to the Filmistan cinema hall, at several points.
“By early 2000, most traders in the area had moved to bigger markets. With time, residents who were better off also moved to localities with better living conditions,” said Mohammad Wasim, a factory owner in Anaj Mandi, who too had moved to Azad Market around 12 years ago.
This trend paved way for migration and, soon, hundreds of buildings in the locality – of which most used to be mills that processed grains and sugar – turned into accommodations that were rented to migrants from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh.
In the next few years, Anaj Mandi turned into a hub of unauthorised manufacturing units, right under the nose of the authorities who cracked the whip only when an untoward incident took place.
The locality has more than 100 micro and small-scale enterprises – with floor areas ranging between 40 square yard to 400 square yard and workforce ranging from six to more than a 100. “The rent for a 100 square yard space would is around Rs 40,000 per month,” said Sami Gani, who owns a bag factory in the locality.
Most enterprises in the locality engage in production of bags of different varieties, cheap winter apparels, plastic toys, paper products and cupboards.
These units, along with the tyre, garments and other markets in and around Sadar area, act as a source of livelihood for the migrant population, which inhabits Anaj Mandi. Sunday’s incident has sparked fear among residents, most of them being men who had left their families in villages to eke out a livelihood.
In most cases, including the building in which Sunday’s blaze took place, the manufacturing units in Anaj Mandi double up as shelters for workers living there. Those not employed with the manufacturing units, often rent rooms in the neighbourhood, which they share with several others, often adjusting work hours and taking turns to sleep.
Senior government officials said most such factories do not exist on paper and they come under the ambit of labour laws only when their existence come to light, which often happens after some untoward incident.