The fire tragedy in Delhi’s Anaj Mandi area that claimed 43 lives once again reveals the ramshackle nature of governance in India. Every aspect of the operation was illegal – the so called factory or factories were unlicenced and unauthorised; the six-storey structure they were housed in did not have legal clearances, did not meet fire-safety regulations in any way, and so on. According to reports, the fire service that went to the rescue has equipment that is decades out of date. The odds were heavily stacked against the people who died as the result of a short circuit. Had there even been even the most elementary fire-escape, many lives would have been saved because the victims were basically trapped and died of asphyxiation and not burns. The compensation being offered by the Delhi and Central Governments, as well as by political parties, is just blood money in light of the coming elections.
The ‘factory’ was one among millions such that operate in the country in what is described as the ‘informal economy’, the decline of which the likes of Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram so deeply mourn. They are nothing more than sweatshops that thrive on slave labour economic models, with profits being made by the owners at the cost of everybody else. Political connections and bribes ensure that these ‘enterprises’ survive and thrive in such dangerous, inhumane conditions. If there is any kind of crackdown at the micro or macro levels, the ‘job losses’ incurred are cited as reasons for their continuance and become fuel for political attacks on the system.
Reforms in this sector are urgent and necessary. These require an across the board political consensus. Those charged with enforcing regulations at the ground level cannot steer the change because they are asked to make small compromises, which by themselves are seemingly negligible but, put together, cascade into major tragedies. These activities continue with soul destroying work conditions that add no value to people’s lives except those of the exploiters.
Bringing India’s industrial effort into the ‘formal’ sector so that nothing is invisible and everything is accounted for is an absolute necessity today. Unless the challenges come out in the open, solutions will not be found. A crackdown today on the Anaj Mandi area will achieve nothing because the solutions have to be found at the policy level. It is the products that have to be brought into the mainstream by ensuring the necessary black market no longer exists. If India’s resources cannot provide a cheap enough product, these should be imported and the focus should be on higher quality, remunerative and humane production activity (with concomitant skilled labour). Unless this is done, such tragedies will be the price the nation will continue to pay for outdated governance.