KARACHI, Sept 19: An inquiry tribunal set up by the Sindh government to investigate the deadly Baldia Town factory fire that killed more than 250 people on Wednesday sought that ‘parallel inquiries’ into the incident by other bodies be stopped as they could create problems for witnesses and affect the findings of the tribunal.
While recording statements of witnesses and the officials concerned, the tribunal headed by retired Justice Zahid Qurban Alvi observed that apart from the Sindh chief minister assigned judicial inquiry there were several other inquiries being conducted by different institutions.
“So, I have conveyed that thought to the authorities to put a stop to those inquiries,” he said. “These parallel inquiries not only bother witnesses and the officials concerned, but may also affect the findings. They should be stopped until the tribunal completes its job.”
On the third day of the proceedings, Sindh Industrial and Trading Estate (SITE) managing director Abdul Rasheed Solangi and his chief engineer Ghulam Shabbir Khokhar appeared before the tribunal. Similarly, joint director of labour Zahid Gulzar Sheikh and deputy director of labour Owais Ahmed Sheikh also recorded their statements.
After the statement of the SITE officials, Justice Alvi said he believed that the Ali Enterprises building had more than capacity workers with a large number of machines that hampered escape of the people from the fire.The SITE MD told the tribunal that till 2005 his organisation paid surprise visits to factories that helped them inspect any industrial unit four or five times a year, but the exercise was stopped after a ban was imposed on such visits more than seven years back.
“The SITE area has more than 2,400 industrial units, but it doesn’t have its own firefighting system. In 2007 we made a formal request to the authorities for setting up at least one fire station under the SITE Limited, which was not accepted,” he added.
In their testimonies, the senior officers of the labour department told the tribunal that they had not yet visited the fire-wrecked Ali Enterprises, and told the inquiry chief that the key organisation assigned with workers welfare was manned by only five officials.
“How one institution can look into the affairs of the workers associated with more than 10,000 factories with only five officials?” said a surprised Justice Alvi, who was told that there were several vacant posts in the Sindh labour department but the vacancies were not being filled.
The tribunal was informed that the labour department operated under the Factories Act 1934 and the Sindh Factories Rules 1975 and it could impose up to only Rs500 in fine on the owners of industrial units violating labour laws. “Has your department ever sent a proposal or request to the authorities concerned to enhance the amount of that penalty?” asked Justice Alvi but did not receive a reply.
He also directed the labour department officers to ensure the payment of compensation to the families of each victim of the incident, including wage earners who were not direct employees of the Ali Enterprise and worked under a contract system.