By Archana Shukla
BBC Business Correspondent
Image caption, Muskan (in photo in the foreground) was among 21 people who died in a factory fire in Delhi in May
“This is a factory of deaths.”
Ismail Khan’s hand trembles as he points towards the second floor of a burnt building in India’s capital, Delhi.
That was where he last saw his younger sister – trapped and suffocating, desperate to find a way out as the building was consumed by smoke and fire.
Muskan, 21, was among 27 people killed in the massive fire, which broke out in May at an electronics manufacturing unit in the four-storey building.
In the days after the fire, a top police official told media that the building’s owner had not obtained clearance certificates from the fire department and police before subletting three floors of the building to two brothers who ran the manufacturing unit. The Delhi police’s public relations officer also told the BBC that the unit did not have the “requisite licences” for operation.
The BBC phoned the factory owners several times but did not receive an answer. The BBC also tried to contact their lawyer but he refused to share his details where we could send queries.
India is aiming to become an industrial powerhouse, with government schemes and reforms tailored to encourage investments and innovation. But tragedies like the Delhi fire are all too common, with desperate and vulnerable workers often paying the price.
Image caption, Twenty-seven workers died in the building fire in Delhi
Industrial accidents kill hundreds of people and permanently disable thousands every year. A federal minister told parliament in 2021 that at least 6,500 workers had died while working in factories, ports, mines and construction sites in five years. Labour activists, who have worked in the field for years, told the BBC that the figures could be higher as many incidents are not reported or recorded.
According to data collected by global workers’ union IndustriAll, sectors such as manufacturing, chemicals and construction report the most fatalities in India. In 2021 alone, it said an average of seven accidents were reported every month in Indian manufacturing industries, killing more than 162 workers.
Over the years, news reports have flagged that workers in “small, unregistered factories” are often most affected by industrial accidents. The victims are usually poor workers or migrants whose families don’t have the resources to fight legal battles.
The BBC has emailed questions to the labour commissioner at the Delhi Municipal Corporation and officials at the federal labour ministry, but has not received responses yet.
‘I want justice’
Rakesh Kumar often wakes up screaming in the middle of the night. He lost three of his daughters in the fire at the Delhi factory, where they assembled Wi-Fi routers for 8,000 rupees ($100; £84) a month each.
“My daughters must have suffered so much,” he says.
Image caption, Rakesh Kumar lost three of his daughters in the Delhi factory fire
The family waited for news about them for days after the fire, until the police called them for a DNA test to identify their charred remains. His daughters were eventually cremated a month after the fire.
“I want justice for them,” says Mr Kumar.
In August, the Delhi police filed charges in court against five accused in the case. They include attempt to commit culpable homicide and causing death by negligence.
Rajesh Kashyap, a trade union activist in Delhi, alleges that many factories in the capital and its suburbs flout at least one industrial or safety law, but action is rarely taken.
He and other labour activists allege that in many industrial accidents, cases languish for years while the accused are released on bail.
According to the Delhi police, 663 factory accidents were registered just in the capital over the past five years, in which 245 people died. Around 84 people were arrested in connection with these accidents.
In response to allegations from labour activists that the initial investigation in these kinds of cases is often flawed, police say they try to ensure “immediate action against the culprits”. But, they add, convictions may not occur in many cases due to a number of reasons, including delay in getting forensic results and opinions from technical experts, among others.
Struggle for compensation
The BBC met several families who are still grappling with the loss of their loved ones, many of whom were the only breadwinners.
But legal red tape and a mix of factors can make it hard to access compensation from the companies.
A senior lawyer, who has worked on several worker compensation cases, told the BBC that such legal proceedings usually ran on for years.
Image caption, Sangeeta Roy lost her arm in a workplace accident three years ago
Often, the government itself announces a lump-sum payment to the families, shifting focus away from demanding compensation from companies.
And by the time a case is taken up, the families of the migrant workers – hurt and broken by their loss – may have moved back to their village or another city in search of jobs.
“Workers don’t have much faith in the legal system due to the long, complex processes. So, they take whatever money they get as settlement or ex-gratia from the government and leave,” says Chandan Kumar, who is part of a civil society organisation that assists informal workers.
The BBC tried to contact families of the victims of a 2018 factory fire in Delhi in which 17 workers died, but almost all of them had left the city.
The case is similar for those maimed by these accidents.
Sangeeta Roy, 50, lost an arm while using a cardboard-cutting machine at her company three years ago. She says she didn’t receive any compensation from her employers and had to wait for three years to get a government pension for injured workers.
There is no official national data on workers left disabled by industrial accidents. But a recent survey by non-profit Safe in India Foundation – done mainly in the vehicle parts manufacturing factories in northern India – says 3,955 serious accidents took place between 2016 and 2022. Seventy-percent of the injured had lost their fingers or crushed their hands while using a metal pressing machine.
India is a major auto manufacturing hub in South Asia, employing an estimated 10 million workers. A large part of the manufacturing is contracted and subcontracted to smaller companies.
The non-profit’s founder, Sandeep Sachdeva, told the BBC that many states don’t accurately report such cases.
Worries for the future
India has begun reforming its labour laws through four new labour codes that include provisions for occupational safety, health and working conditions.
But activists are concerned that the new laws might set the compliance bar even lower.
Image source, Getty Images
Image caption, Victims of industrial accidents often find it hard to access compensation
While the earlier law said that any company with 10 workers or more should have a safety committee, the proposed new law raises the number to 250.
But according to the 2016 Economic Census, just 1.66% of total non-agricultural establishments, 2% in manufacturing and 1.25% in the construction industry employed 10 or more workers.
There is no data available for the informal economy, which employs 90% of India’s workforce.
Many companies are also shifting to hiring contract workers over permanent ones which further weakens workers’ rights, says lawyer and labour rights activist Sudha Bhardwaj.
Desperation for jobs has also made workers hesitant to join unions.
The government has also changed protocols for workplace inspections in an effort to make the process easier for companies. While currently, labour officers are responsible for inspecting and ensuring the implementation of safety rules, their role will change to that of mediators under the new codes.
Labour experts say this makes it even less likely for factory owners to prioritise workers’ safety or social security.
“Workers’ safety will eventually be nobody’s responsibility,” says Sidheshwar Prasad Shukla, an academic and labour activist.