KARACHI: While inspector Chaudry Zafar Iqbal, an official investigating the Baldia factory inferno, said that it is improbable that extortionists had played a role, there were several questions that still need to be answered.
On September 12, the Sindh government formed a commission, headed by Justice (retd) Zahid Qurban Alvi, to investigate causes of the blaze at Ali Enterprises, where 289 people lost their lives.
Recording his testimony on Thursday, Iqbal ruled out extortion as a possible cause. “It appears that extortionists were not behind the inferno and I cannot speculate further about its cause,” he said. “But I can conclude that the negligence by the factory’s management led to the deaths.” He said that a few minutes before the incident, Shahid Bhalia, one of the factory’s owners, asked the general manager, Mansoor, to meet him. Mansoor promptly got out of his office on the second floor and made his way downstairs to Bhaila’s office. “How is it possible that the general manager easily came downstairs but labourers on the same floor could not escape?” Iqbal said. “I think something is off and further investigation is needed.”
The inspector said a suspicious man named Majid used to visit factory though he was not an employee. “The owners had given him a contract to collect scrap from the factory. When I interrogated him, he told me how the fire broke out and how people initially reacted to it,” he said.
Quoting eyewitnesses’ statements, Iqbal said the fire erupted on the ground floor and was first noticed by an accountant who cried for help. Two other employees, Asad Kaka and Shahrukh, just stood there and watched. “Both of them have gone into hiding but we are trying to arrest them,” he said.
After the incident, Iqbal collected evidence from the site, including CCTV footage. But police officials from other units, including the Special Investigation Unit, took the objects away. “I have only been given some pieces of gutted wire. I have handed them over to Karachi University for forensic investigation.”
When Justice Alvi asked the officer for the CCTV footage, he said that other police officials had it. “I will try to bring on Saturday,” said Iqbal.
Two inspectors from the forensic department who collected some objects from the factory told the committee that they did not have the expertise to scrutinise them. They simply collected the objects so that they could be passed on to police officers for investigation.
Sub inspector Qalandar Bux and inspector Rashid said, “The fire does not come under our purview. We were asked by our higer-ups to go there and found some pieces of gutted wire, which we have given to the investigation officer.”
The statement irked Justice Alvi, who asked why the forensic department had been lying dormant. “We some photos too depicting the fire.” But Justice Alvi said that he wanted to know the cause of fire through a forensic report. “I assume the finding of your report will help investigate the cause of fire,” he said. But forensic inspector said, “We don’t have the equipment or the expertise. We suggest you to ask fire brigade and other departments.” Justice Alvi responded and said, “If you people are not able to do this much, then I will suggest the government to shut your department down,” he said.
Insurance company to hire forensic expert
SP Amir Farooqui told the committee that the company that the factory had been insured by will hire a foreign forensic expert to ascertain the cause of fire. He also gave the committee a list comprising the names of the 1,293 workers.
Ali Enterprise not registered with labour dept
Civil defence officials told the judicial committee that Ali Enterprises was not registered with them. The department’s deputy controller, Altaf Hussain, said that it is responsible for installing safety equipment, but since factory was not registered with the labour department, they did not bother to visit it.
“Around 200 workers are registered with us. But we will pay EOBI pension to survivors of dead and injured,” said an official of the EOBI.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 21st, 2012.