LAHORE: Under the shade of a tree sits Mohammad Shahid, his rescue truck parked to one side. He has a team of three other men, all sitting in a circle together, their faces masks of weariness and solemnity. It has been a few days now since the rescue operation started at Sundar Industrial Estate (SIE), where a factory building collapsed suddenly on Nov 4, leaving over 45 labourers dead and at least 100physically injured.
A mountain of boulders remains now of what was once a four-storey structure. At the back, the main beam can be seen having sagged terribly low in the middle, while two very narrow — almost delicate — pillars remain standing on either side like memorial towers.
“I was the first response officer here when the collapse occurred,” says Mohammad grimly. His eyes are swollen and red from the lack of sleep. “But when I reached, there were already hundreds of people who had gathered from nearby factories.”
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That night and for the next four days, the place crawled with cranes and other machinery pulling people out from under the debris — some dead, others only half alive. ‘Doorways’ were dug to rescue people trapped underneath. As they dug, cries and screams could be heard from under the debris.
“A building collapse is the one of the most gruesome incidents,” says Mohammad. “You see dead people, mashed to a pulp. You remain overwhelmed even days later — to feel what they must have felt. I brought out a man, both of whose legs had been crushed completely from the knee down. The doctors had to give him anaesthesia and amputate them. There was another man who had to lose one leg. I am sure that his legs must still be under that pillar because there was so much we could not move.”
The factory, called ‘Rajput Polyester’, simply caved in. The owner, who the survivors blame for the collapse, was crushed underneath too.
“The building was flimsy, and after the earthquake, cracks had developed. But the owner would not stop putting on more and more weight by constructing a fourth floor,” says Ashfaq Hussain, a labourer who has now been discharged from hospital. “The unfortunate part was that we complained repeatedly to him but he would not listen.”
Ashfaq says that there was so much seepage and the water levels were so high that the pillars supporting the structure were seen sinking almost every week. “We started putting marks on the pillars and every few days we’d see them closer to the ground. It was very frightening and we had all thought of leaving as soon as we could.”
For 18-year-old Liaquat Farmaish, life is now forever different. “My brother and I, along with a friend from the same village, came to work here together,” he says. “Only I survived this, somehow. My friend and my brother are both gone.” His voice breaks.
“It was like a coffin,” he explains. “I felt like I had been buried alive. People around me were screaming. Many were trying to stay as calm as possible, but for others it was as if the Day of Judgement was here. I did not scream because I was in touch with those on the outside on my mobile phone.”
But for many others, this was not possible. Their mobile phones were crushed; and with them, their cries silenced.
“I have rarely seen human beings in such a pitiful and helpless state,” says Mohammad. “Dragging them out I saw their eyes wide open, they were shaking with fear. Not a word left their mouths. Most of them were dehydrated too, but for all of them this was an extremely traumatic experience.”
Even the secretary of the SIE, Major (retd) Arif, concedes that the building did not look very strong.
“It seemed to be bad quality work and that is the prime reason why such buildings collapse. Investigations are being made and we are trying to trace the contractors and the engineers who approved of the plan of such a building because in the end it is they who are on the field,” he says.
But while contractors and engineers may be at fault, it seems the heaviest burden of responsibility rests on the shoulders of the labour department whose inspectors are infamous for never checking on factories.
“They are bribed by factory owners. Half of what is happening to workers in factories would never happen if labour inspections were conducted regularly,” says Chaudhry Naseem Iqbal, Punjab president of the Pakistan Workers’ Federation. “All the labour parties and unions concur that labour inspection is next to zero, and labourers work in pathetic conditions.”
One significant marker of the lack of inspection is that after the collapse, many workers were revealed to be underage children, the youngest being 12 years old. “They pick up these young children from rural areas and bring them here on low wages,” says Chaudhry Iqbal. “If the labour inspections were conducted properly this should have been stopped.”
Meanwhile, shattered and shaken the survivors of the collapse are filtering back to their villages to recover with their families.
“My brother Sharafat was killed and now I am the only earner,” says Liaquat. “Sooner or later I will have to go looking for a job. The government is ‘compensating’ for the deaths, but nothing has been said about giving us employment.” And while money cannot replace a person, he says, even those who are alive are now displaced and disabled.
“Someone has lost his arms, someone his legs,” says Liaquat. “But I think all of us who have survived have also lost our wits: this fear will never leave us.”
Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2015