LAHORE, Sept 12: “Everyone has to die one day. People like me will die of starvation if they don’t work,” says a survivor of the Bund Road shoe factory inferno.

“I am ready to resume work in the basement (of the burnt factory) as soon as possible. Everything there is intact,” Khurram told Dawn on Wednesday near the factory gate.

The 22-year-old resident of Ganda Engine Chowk of Gowalmandi was among more than 50 labourers giving final touches to soles in the basement of the factory on Tuesday evening when flames engulfed its upper storeys.

A blast followed by cries of panicked labourers on the upper storeys forced Khurram and his colleagues to come out and subsequently run for their lives.

“I know it is very risky to work at such places. The chemicals used in closed places like this do have health hazards… there is no escape from death in case of a fire but what other option people like me have? Isn’t it better to be burnt alive than to die of starvation,” he argued.

Situated along Bund Road in Khokhar Town, a residential locality in the Ravi bed, the burnt building was primarily constructed as a plaza, having one entry-exit point each for its basement and upper stories.

A dozen or so such `industrial units’ in the close proximity of the gutted factory had business as usual with workers busy in nickel chrome or polish process, manufacturing card board boxes, shoes, decanting chemicals, mobil oil and other cheap lubricants. All the buildings housing these units seemed to have been constructed for residential purposes with a single exit-entry point and many of them without proper ventilation arrangements.

Having more than 400 or so industrial units operating in houses, Khokhar Town is among several localities that cropped up in the riverbed during the last three decades.

A city district government official told Dawn that according to estimates, some 500,000 kanal had been occupied by people in the riverbed following the 1988 floods, though the Punjab government had banned raising any structure by acquiring hundreds of kanals there.

The official said the Punjab government acquired 15,830 kanals of Mauza Babu Sabu, 6,896 of Mauza Sanda Kalan, 5,874 of Ganjay Kalan, 5,511 of Naunarian, 3,463 of Sherakot, 1,358 of Sanda Khurd, 394 of Budroo and 4.75 kanals of Mauza Nawankot.

“However, the construction activities continued there under political patronage. At present, some 300,000 or so houses, around 1,000 small and medium factories, more than 500 mosques and graveyards, 150 brick kilns, over 100 private schools, 30 cold storages, besides 100 or so shrines, exist in the area spreading over 50 kilometres (from Mahmood Booti to Niazi Chowk and Gao Shalla to Babu Sabu up to the limits of Sheikhupura district).

Although the whole settlement was illegal, development works worth hundreds of thousands of rupees were carried out there merely to please voters. But no one bothered to check the mushroom growth of illegal industrial units there.

During the 2004-05 tenure of district nazim Mian Amer Mahmood, Lahore’s Master Plan 2021 was finalised which was aimed at carrying out a detailed survey of the provincial capital, followed by strict demarcation of industrial, commercial and residential areas. But the plan was put on the back burner, obviously for political reasons,” said the official.

District Officer (Industries) Muhammad Azhar said after a boiler exploded in a pharmaceutical factory along Multan Road near Kharak, the CDGL initiated a detailed survey of all localities of the city to collect data on illegal industrial units in residential areas.

“We have carried out survey of 70 per cent areas while the rest will be done in a month or so and a report will be submitted to the chief minister. Some 1,800 illegal industrial units were found in residential areas of the city where the survey has been conducted,” said the district officer.

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