Delhi’s fire-hit building broke every rule in the book
The five-storey building in Delhi’s Anaj Mandi that caught fire on December 8, leaving 43 workers dead, was not just an illegal factory without requisite clearances; a series of violations made the establishment a dangerous fire hazard, according to the initial findings of the Delhi Police crime branch.
Investigators involved in the probe pointed to several glaring lapses — the height of the building was 17 metres in a locality where the permissible limit is 15 metres; of its 18 rooms, 15 were rented out to different people to run illegal manufacturing units, but no lease documentation was done with any of the tenants; there was no police verification of any of the tenants; the building was packed with hazardous and inflammable items, such as glue, plastic granules and cardboard; one emergency exit was blocked with goods and locked from the outside; and the other exit route was packed with various materials with barely any room to squeeze in and out of.
The investigators, who described these violations as “serious”, said they have limited their probe to the role of 19 people — three owners, one factory manager, and 15 tenants — to fix criminal liability and negligence leading to the deaths of 43 people on the second, third and fourth floors after a fire broke out early on Sunday morning and engulfed the staircases, leaving them no room to escape.
“We are informing the concerned agencies about the respective violations and are seeking their assistance in ascertaining the cause of the fire and fix criminal liability. A magisterial probe has already been ordered to probe the violations and hold the officials accountable for other lapses,” said a crime branch officer, who asked not to be named.
The magisterial probe, by East Delhi district magistrate Arun Kumar Mishra, has recorded statements of 10 survivors, at least three eyewitnesses, and officials of several departments, including the North Delhi Municipal Corporation, Delhi Police, and Delhi Fire Services (DFS).
A government official, who asked not to named, said their initial findings showed that not only were building laws being flouted, each floor was packed with more people and goods than its capacity. “There was no ventilation, and the staircase was blocked with highly combustible raw material,” the official said.
The magisterial probe aims to fix the responsibility of erring government and civic departments and their officials. “The aim is not only to find out lapses which led to the incident but hold the erring officials accountable for the tragedy and suggest action against them. The probe will also suggest preventive measures for such mishaps,” the official said, adding the inquiry is likely to be completed in a week.
As reported by HT on Tuesday, in the last three major fires in the city — Nand Nagri in 2011, Bawana in 2018 and Karol Bagh in 2019, which together claimed 52 lives — not a single government official across the Delhi Police, the civic bodies, and DFS was indicted in any magisterial probe for lapses or negligence.
On Wednesday, the police arrested Suhail, another owner of the building, from north Delhi, taking the total number of arrests in the case to three. Two people — Mohammad Rehan, who owned a major part of the building (13 of the 18 rooms) and his manager Furkan — were arrested on Sunday evening. Police are now looking for the third owner, Mohammad Imran, and 14 tenants who are absconding since the incident.
One tenant, Imran, and his brother, Ikram, were among the 43 people killed.
Another investigator said that Rehan’s interrogation revealed that he bought the building in partnership with his late father Mohammad Yameen and father-in-law (name not revealed) in 2004.
“The building was raised to five floors by its owners in 2007 and 2008. Its existing height is a little over 17 metres, which is in violation with the building construction laws,” the investigator cited above said.
The police said that they found over 500kg of inflammable plastic granules packed in 50 sacks on the ground floor. A plastic injection moulding machine was found on the first floor, along with sheets of cardboard, glue, and mirror frames.
“These two floors were not affected by the fire. The casualties would have been higher had the ground and first floors caught fire. There were more than 100 workers in the building when it caught fire,” the officer added.
Officials of the electricity department and Central Forensic Science Labouratory (CFSL) inspected the building on Wednesday and collected samples to be used for ascertaining the cause of fire, said deputy commissioner of police (crime) Rajesh Deo.
He added that though the cause of the fire appeared to be a short-circuit, the police is waiting for reports from the fire, electricity and forensics departments before announcing the cause of fire.