As investigators combed through closed circuit television footage from inside the ill-fated garment factory in Karachi, Sindh Minister for Commerce and Industries Rauf Siddiqui tendered his resignation on Friday.
The inferno claimed 259 lives in what has been termed the worst industrial tragedy in the country’s history.
Taking partial responsibility for the incident, the provincial minister announced his resignation at a press conference at the office of SITE, the industrial estate where the ill-fated garment factory is located.
Siddiqui said his department examines boilers installed in factories, under the Boiler Act 1923/1941, but has nothing to do with other affairs of industrial units in the province.
“It is not my responsibility to monitor fire-fighting system and hazards being faced by workers inside the factories,” Siddiqui said.
“My role is to frame policies, allot land for factories and develop the infrastructure. But, given the incident, my party has directed me to resign; therefore I cannot continue my job,” he added.
The minister said various committees have been formed to probe the incident and “it is better to resign rather than hold my office and create doubts that I can influence the investigation,” he said.
Siddiqui shared responsibility with various other entities.
He said it was negligence on the part of factory owners who did not follow labour and civil defence laws.
“There was no fire fighting system, which is a responsibility of civil defence which comes under the control of the home department,” he said.
“It is the labour department’s job to implement the Factory Act 1934, forcing employers to adopt precautionary measures to deal with any emergency. But it failed to inspect the lacking facilities inside the ill-fated factory,” he added.
Siddiqui said he could not take any action against the industry in this case and only had the authority the cancel the allotment of the factory land and impose a penalty on the owners.
He said that he had only one authority, which he used by cancelling the allotment of the factory land and imposed the penalty on the factory owners bounding them.
He said he has sent a summary to the chief minister, binding the owners to pay Rs0.5 million to the heirs of the deceased, and Rs0.2 million to the injured.
Whom to resign to?
Interestingly, Siddiqui tendered his resignation to Governor Dr Isratul Ebad, instead of Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah, who heads the provincial government and the cabinet.
The governor is affiliated with the same party as Siddiqui, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), while the chief minister is from the Pakistan Peoples Party.
Constitutional experts say the resignation, in principle, should be sent to the chief minister.
“It is not legally wrong, but is against the prescribed procedure. Cabinet members should send their resignations to the chief minister, who refers it to the governor for final approval,” said Advocate General Fatah Malik.
MQM hails move
The MQM Coordination Committee hailed Siddiqui’s resignation and said the minister has set an example by resigning from his position “at the call of his conscience”.
Siddiqui has not only resigned but also presented himself before the public for accountability, the committee said in a press release.
MQM chief Altaf Hussain also paid tribute to Siddiqui, and directed him to continue working to help those affected by the incident.
Investigators claim ‘breakthrough’
After combing through video footage from one of the camera systems installed at the factory, investigators on Friday claimed a ‘breakthrough’ in the probe and ruled out terrorism or a criminal act behind the fire.
Investigators say the two-minute footage showed that the fire broke out at 6:58pm in the sorting department of the factory on the first floor.
“First, there was a spark in electric wires that sent flames into the fabric dump,” said a police official involved in the investigations.
“The fabric caught fire and engulfed a boiler located close by. The boiler exploded, spreading fire through the fabric and wooden installations throughout the factory,” he added.
Scratching the surface
The footage provides clues into the inferno, but is far from comprehensive.
One of the investigators said that about 20 cameras were installed at the facility, with three in each department, but only six cameras were functional. The blaze burned the wires of the six functional cameras too.
Investigators have only managed to decode footage from one of the video systems that was installed inside the factory. CCTV footage from outside the factory has yet to be decoded.
Investigators also have to sort out other things, like who locked the exit door and why were the remaining cameras not functional.
“People were trapped inside because there was a single exit with an electronic lock that stopped functioning once the fire broke out,” said Criminal Investigation Agency chief Manzur Mughal.
District West DIG Akram Naeem Bharoka said along with the video footage, the investigators also have to record statements and collect other evidence.
There were reports that the police have detained about a dozen people belonging to the factory management and administration, and shifted them a an undisclosed location, but the investigators neither confirmed nor denied the reports.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 15th, 2012.