The factory fires in Karachi and Lahore, which killed a combined total of over 300 people, were entirely preventable. Had the factory owners complied with existing laws and had local authorities shown any interest in enforcing these, the fires would have been preventable. It is likely that the fires were caused by a short circuit, which accounts for nearly 50 per cent of all industrial fires and could be reduced simply by updating the obsolete electric supply system in the country. In addition, fire safety laws, which fall under the purview of district and provincial governments, should be refined in the wake of this tragedy to force all commercial and residential buildings and homes to use only fire resistant cables.
As it is, the laws we have on the books should have been enough, had they been followed and enforced, to contain the fallout from the fires. The Factories Act of 1934 (amended in 1997) has an entire section devoted to fire safety. Ali Enterprises, the textile company which owned the factory where the fire took place, is guilty of flouting several laws. According to eyewitnesses, only one exit was open while the rest were fastened. The owner and chief executive officer of Ali Enterprises have been placed on the exit control list but that on its own is not enough. They must be prosecuted and jailed for their negligence and criminality.
Local governments must wake up to the fact that they are equally culpable. Working in collusion with building mafias, the authorities responsible for fire safety and building standards have been all too willing to turn a blind eye to blatant violations, preferring to line their pockets with cash. On top of that, fire departments, particularly in Karachi, are simply not equipped to do their jobs. There are only 23 fire stations in the city and between them they have a total of 40 odd fire tenders and just a handful of snorkels and dousers. This makes response times pathetic and leaves them unable to do little more than just recover charred bodies.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 14th, 2012.