KARACHI: Fearing that the public reaction to the Baldia factory inferno will fizzle out like that generated by other tragic incidents such as the collapse of the Shershah Bridge and Boulton market fire, members of civil society gathered on Monday at the Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) House.
Their mission: to etch the incident into collective memory and kick responsible bodies out of their stupor.
The press conference was organised by the PMA and several high-profile members of civil society got a chance to voice their pessimism about the current investigation on one of the most lethal factory fires the country has witnessed.
“Nothing will come of [the investigation],” said Dr Mirza Ali Azhar, the association’s general secretary. He added that the inferno raised a plethora of questions which have yet to be answered: Is there any central authority which allows factories to be set up across Pakistan without protective measures for workers? Which ministry is responsible? And to what extent? If laws exist, who is responsible for implementing them?
Dr Azhar pointed out that thousands of people - some with the intention to help out and others just wanting to catch a glimpse of the action - rush to the site of mishaps, creating even more chaos. Even those with the best intentions inadvertently do more harm as they jump into the mix without having a clue about the rescue procedure.
Dr Qaiser Sajjad, the treasurer of the association, pointed to the lack of facilities in the city. “There are no DNA testing laboratories here, cold storages and no trauma centres,” he said. Dr Sajjad said that the families of unidentified victims are in for an emotionally exhausting and long wait. The DNA samples will be sent to Islamabad once all of them have been collected and then it will take time to run the tests.
Habibuddin Junaidi, the leader of a trade union, stressed the importance of implementing the International Labour Organisation conventions. “Pakistan has signed the greatest number of conventions yet there is they are least implemented here.”
Amarnath Motumal, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s vice chairperson for the Sindh chapter, said that there are enough laws in the country and if they are implemented, then the 16 bodies responsible for ensuring worker safety can be held accountable.
Nasir Mansoor of the National Trade Union Federation said that capitalist greed has taken over society and as a result, workers lose their rights. “The judiciary gave an eight-day bail to the owners, which is an indication that it does not support the working class,” he said.
Faheem Zaman, a member of Citizens for Democracy, suggested a team of civil society members be formed to the probe the incident and forage for facts regarding working conditions in the country’s factories. “I read the report prepared by the fire department and it was so superficial and erroneous that it was laughable.”
The way forward
The doctors’ association made a list of ten recommendations to help prevent mishaps. The list includes implementing existing laws, creating a system to ensure implementation and mandatory training for workers. Industrialists and factory owners should have a fool-proof escape plans - complete with clearly marked emergency exits and alarms. The owners should maintain electricity lines properly to minimise the risk of short circuits.
The doctors association has also asked the National Disaster Management Authority to look into these incidents and appealed to the media to spread awareness. There is only one trauma centre in the city at Abbasi Shaheed Hospital - the one at Civil hospital is still under construction.
There is also just one burns centre in a city which is vulnerable to disasters. The association said that all of Karachi’s major hospitals should make a separate burns ward. More trauma centres should be created and more paramedics as well as doctors should be trained to deal with such situations.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 18th, 2012.
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