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No lessons learnt

October 30, 2012

COMING as does on the heels of a factory fire in Karachi’s Baldia Town that killed at least 258 people, the inferno that decimated another factory in SITE over the Eidul Azha holidays was a stark reminder of how unprepared the authorities remain. While it was a relief that no loss of life was reported, it should be noted — as witnessed earlier — that fires at such locations can spread at a horrifying pace and prove very difficult to bring under control. The fire fighters that first reached the scene realised that they would be unable to contain the situation, which rapidly reached the level of a third-degree inferno — no doubt partly because of the highly flammable contents of the warehouse. An SOS resulted in fire tenders arriving there from across the city, including PAF fire tenders from the nearby Masroor Airbase. Even so, it took around 30 hours to contain the blaze, with the fire fighters finally leaving when it was feared that the building would collapse.

That there was no loss of life was sheer providence and not a result of any safety measures being put in place. Hundreds of people worked in the building, and had the fire broken out during a working day rather than on Eid weekend, when it was empty, the possibility of another catastrophic event could not have been ruled out. In the wake of the September incident, vociferous commitments were made by various administrative quarters to concentrate on improving safety standards in industrial units and to reinstate the factory inspection process. A little over a month later, however, the matter seems to have been swept off the radar. While legal proceedings against that factory’s owners are under way, the much more crucial issue of rendering workplaces safe and ensuring the availability of adequate escape routes, fire extinguishers and fire hydrants etc is not receiving due consideration.

For obvious reasons, the importance of protecting workers, whether at industrial units or elsewhere, cannot be overemphasised. Wherever people find employment, it is the employers’ duty to ensure that neither life nor limb is at risk, and the responsibility of the state apparatus to make certain that rules and regulations are followed. Safety standards in general are lax in Pakistan, and the state does little to intervene. In order to alter this trajectory, a pressure lobby needs to be built up in society, with the aim of not just prompting the administration to act but also to raise the workers’ awareness level. Strong unions could have a much-needed effect in this regard.