The chief engineer of the Sindh Industrial Trading Estate Limited (SITE), where thousands of factories are located, has said that they have nothing to do with emergency exits or fire-fighting arrangements.
“We have nothing to do with the safety and emergency exits. Our building bylaws say nothing about it,” said Shabbir Khokhar, the chief engineer. “It is responsibility of the civil defence department to ensure that fire-fighting precautions have been taken.”
He said that they had visited the factory where 258 people perished in a fire on Tuesday, but they couldn’t go inside. “But there was a separate staircase for every block of the factory,” he noted.
Experts who visited the site say there was every indication that the employees did not know how to cope with an emergency. “The first three minutes are crucial in a fire like this,” said Farhat Hussain, the president of the Fire Association of Pakistan. If the fire is not controlled within this timeframe, then the situation gets out of control easily. “Fire extinguishers and emergency exits are useless if people can’t use them.”
Industries Minister Rauf Siddiqui said that land is allotted by his ministry but after that it becomes the responsibility of SITE, the labour department and civil defence authorities to inspect code violations. He felt the owners were first responsible and then government agencies.
Ali Enterprises had not been inspected, according to Labour Minister Ameer Nawab, who maintained that efforts made to visit the factory were sabotaged by the owner who pulled on his high-powered connections.
Rauf Siddiqui claims that inspectors are often paid off by factory owners but Nawab denies that in this specific case. “I don’t think it was possible because no one could get close enough to the factory in the first place.”
Nawab argued that often the mindset is to turn a blind eye in order to make doing business easier.
The law doesn’t specify how many inspections can or should take place in a year, but according to a source who works in the industrial sector, stakeholders and lawmakers agreed to limit them to once a year.
According to Nawab, only a couple of hundred workers were registered with the Sindh Employees Social Security and the Employees Old Age Benefits Institution and had appointment letters.
The government has taken possession of the land and will go to court to cancel the lease.
Rescue called off
Rescue work stopped on Thursday as investigators prepared to go inside to find out what caused the country’s worst industrial fire.
Chief Fire Officer Ehtesham Salim said rescue workers have swept through almost the entire factory. “We are wrapping up the operation. I can’t say how the fire started and spread so quickly. The inspection will start from tomorrow (Friday).”
A senior police official indicated that the fire must have started in the backup power system on the ground floor of the three-storey building.
“Probably some fault at the generator sparked the fire,” said SSP South Asif Ijaz Sheikh at a press conference. “It will take us a few days to find out what exactly happened. But let me assure everyone that the police realises the enormity of this incident. Investigations won’t be hushed up.”
He denied that the department was being stopped from going after the owners of Ali Enterprises. “The only pressure we are feeling is to get a hold of them.”
According to the records of the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR), the company is registered under the name of Abdul Aziz Bhaila who has been paying income tax since November 2001.
The police has so far raided only the home of the Bhaila family in Defence Housing Authority (DHA), said Sheikh. “No one was at home. We haven’t made any arrests.”
Authorities confirmed the deaths of 259 workers, including 23 women. Around 82 bodies have yet to be identified.
A committee of government officials formed by Commissioner Karachi Roshan Ali Shaikh has yet to start its investigation. It has been tasked with establishing the responsibility of the industries, labour and civil defence departments of the Sindh government.
Deputy Commissioner West Ghanwar Leghari, who heads the committee, said he was too involved in the rescue operation to comment. “It’s a tragedy on a massive scale so we all need to be patient and not do anything that might be used against the victims.”
Published in The Express Tribune, September 14th, 2012.