Not just Anaj Mandi: A look at 5 Delhi areas most vulnerable to fires
Senior officials from Delhi Fire Services (DFS) and municipal agencies said that nearly 16 years after the Supreme Court ordered action against illegal industrial units operating from residential areas, their operations continue to grow unchecked in many parts of the national capital.Updated: Dec 11, 2019 06:05 IST
Narrow alleys, dangling webs of high-tension cables and illegal industrial units operating from tall rickety structures that are stuffed with enormous goods and workers marching in and out to make a meagre living. The description that fits the Anaj Mandi area at central Delhi’s Rani Jhansi Road, where a fire killed 43 people on Sunday, is true for several pockets in the city that amid residential areas house illegal factories, making them ticking time bombs.
Sixteen years since the Supreme Court in the MC Mehta case of 2003 ordered action against illegal industrial units operating from residential areas, the units continue to grow unchecked in many parts of the national capital.
ADN Rao, who is assisting the SC as amicus curiae, said, there has been slow progress in the matter and a tragedy like Sunday’s could repeat in any of these areas at any time. “The case has not progressed, as the government is now going ahead with regularising unauthorised colonies. What is the safety being promised by regularising such areas? Unless the government places the required infrastructure, a fire-related tragedy can happen any time again,” Rao said.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT), in several orders including the latest one on November 27, 2019, had also asked the Delhi government to shut down 4,774 units, found operating illegally.
Between April 1, 2019, and December 10, 2019, the Delhi Fire Services (DFS) received a total of 23,629 calls. Of these, some of the areas that reported the highest number of calls were central Delhi’s Karol Bagh (460), east Delhi’s Geeta Colony (451), old Delhi’s SP Mukherjee Marg (337) and Paiwalan (331) fire stations. Many of these areas are dotted with illegal factories, which operate from crammed spaces and also house the labourers who work here.
Here is a look at Delhi’s most vulnerable areas.
Despite the massive blaze of 1999 in Lal Kuan that killed 57 people, many parts of Delhi’s oldest quarter continue dealings in inflammable chemicals with very few safety checks. The lanes in Chawri Bazar, Khari Baoli and Sadar Bazar have witnessed the rampant growth of illegal construction activities and the situation is only getting worse in terms of rescue and accessibility.
Some units in Lal Kuan, which HT visited, are buried so deep in buildings that not even light filters in and electricity has to be used for illumination at all times. These units include those making shoe soles, cloth bags, glass, steel and plastic objects. There are others within the Walled City, such as Nabi Qarim, where small illegal units have come up, including welding shops using LPG cylinders.
According to officials in the North Delhi Municipal Council, there are more than 1,000 illegal units employing around 10,000 workers in the Walled City and its adjoining areas. In 2018, around 125 fires were reported from various areas in Old Delhi.
“The main problem in rescue operations in these parts are the narrow, cramped lanes. The fire tenders cannot reach the accident spots and that hinders rescue operations,” Delhi Fire Services (DFS) chief Atul Garg said.
It was to tackle this problem that the fire department bought motorcycles fitted with water pumps so that delay in rescue operations could be avoided. However, this has only proved to be a post-accident remedy.
A commercial-cum-residential area in east Delhi, the Gandhi Nagar market has at least 5,000-6,000 units employing more than 20,000 migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand who come to work in the stitching units here.
Municipal officials said that dyes used in the clothing industry pose the risk of triggering fire accidents. The area also witnesses regular transportation of LPG cylinders.
Former Delhi fire chief SK Dheri said the problem in controlling operations in these areas mainly comes down to economics. “People from small villages come to the city to earn livelihoods and these small industries provide jobs. These units must be brought under the ambit of the law and provided with better and safee operating conditions, because if you will close 10 units, 20 more will open up in some other area,” Dheri said.
Most buildings here do not have proper windows for ventilation. The basic norms of running a factory, including emergency fire exits and installation of fire-fighting equipment, are blatantly flouted.
The narrow bylanes of Karol Bagh’s Beadonpura are a favourite among Delhi residents for repair and resetting gold and silver jewellery. However, the use of flames in smoldering ornaments has brought the market to the attention of several government agencies because of the fir risk the process throws up.
The area, according to local traders, has nearly 5,000 ornament-making units that employs about 20,000 workers. Last year, a late-night fire here had killed four people. Following NGT orders, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) had, in May this year, issued show-cause notices to all the units doing soldering work. However, the units are still functioning.
“What we need are comprehensive fire-safety plans for industrial, residential and commercial areas, such as markets. Fire doesn’t restrict itself to the unit that operates illegally. Policies need to be implemented thoroughly for everyone’s safety,” president of South Delhi Vyapar Seva Sangathan Promod Khushwaha said.
Known for small manufacturing units dealing mostly in garments, leather and plastic items, in Seelampur—home to around 3,000 illegal units—all rules are thrown out the window.
Activities such as moulding plastic, chemical dying of clothes, and the use of solvents and acid is rampant here. The area has also come under the radar of the DPCC because of the polluting nature of industrial activities.
“In these colonies, you cannot even go to inspect because the locals often turn violent,” an East Delhi Municipal Corporation official said, asking not to be named.
A senior DPCC official said, “We have sealed at least 900 illegal units across Delhi. However, in many areas, either the owners had voluntarily moved out or appealed to the civic bodies for more time.”
Last month, pollution monitoring teams shut down over 30 industrial units in Mundka. Even though the area has been recognised as an industrial space, the unsafe conditions and poor handling of industrial waste is posing a threat to the lives of thousands of workers here. Most of the illegal units here are those engaged in making objects out of plastic and rubber, located close to the Mundka village.
During inspections last month, the monitoring teams found that many industries had overcrowded their buildings with workers and industrial waste, such as leather and plastic, which was being burnt openly becoming a health hazard for residents.