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KARACHI, Sep 14 2012 (IPS) - The inferno that killed over 250 people at a garments factory in Karachi’s Baldia Town on Sept. 11 has raised questions over not just poor workplace safety standards in industry but massive corruption in government which leads to the flouting of building laws.
More than 500 people, including 50 women, working the evening shift were trapped inside the factory when the fire broke out at around 6:30 pm. While the cause of the blaze is not clear, rescue workers pointed out that there were no emergency escapes in the two-storey building, which had only one exit.
The fire was the worst industrial accident in the history of Pakistan. With grills on the windows and no fire exits, the factory was at particular risk due to a lethal combination of chemical dyes and cotton. It was nothing short of a death trap, with those inside having no chance to escape the toxic fumes that engulfed them.
Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city with a population of 18 million, is the country’s economic hub. The megalopolis accounts for 95 percent of Pakistan’s foreign trade and for 30 percent of national industrial output.
Pakistan relies heavily on its low-cost garment and textile industries for export earnings. According to official statistics, in 2011 the textile industry contributed 7.4 percent of Pakistan’s GDP, employed 38 percent of the manufacturing sector workforce, and accounted for 55.6 percent of total exports.
But it’s not just Karachi, and it’s not just factories. The common denominator that prevails, whether it is a flyover, bridge, road, residential or commercial venture or industrial unit, is a complete lack of adequate safety checks.
This disaster was in the offing and was not a result of an accident but of criminal negligence, if you ask Aqeel Bilgrami, one of Pakistan’s best-known architects and a former president of the Institute of Architects Pakistan (IAP). It came just hours after a similar fire in an illegally constructed shoe factory in Lahore in which 23 people died, including the owner and his son.
“Karachi is strewn with such buildings with no consideration whatsoever paid to even the minimum basic safety standards,” conceded Yasmeen Lari, an architect who has designed quite a number of multi-storey multinational buildings in Karachi.
“Many (buildings) don’t have fire escapes, their stability is questionable, and a vast majority have no provision for handicap accessibility,” Bilgrami told IPS.
But the Sept. 11 tragedy could serve as a wakeup call for the authorities and builders. According to Bilgrami, most factories can still add fire exits. And those which are structurally unstable can be strengthened by retro-fitting, although it is an expensive process. “The columns and structure can be checked for adequacy of steel and concrete quality, and can be strengthened.”
He said after the 2005 earthquake, there was much debate, and a survey was carried out to identify buildings that were in precarious condition and begin retro-fitting. But the enthusiasm soon died out, he added.
Another problem was that fire-fighters and ambulances lost precious time as they made their way through huge crowds of onlookers. The fire chief also admitted that the fire-fighters were constrained by a lack of resources, and that at one point their engines ran out of water.
Moreover, factory workers are rarely trained through fire drills. Even private schools never or rarely hold fire drills.
“Karachi lies on an active earthquake fault-line, and I shudder to even contemplate the magnitude of destruction in this city if a catastrophe like the 2005 Kashmir earthquake happened here,” Lari said.
She said that with most of the multiple-storey buildings huddled so close together, and with little adherence to the building codes, they would collapse like a giant row of dominoes within seconds.
“In addition, there are old buildings in the city centre that were originally built for one family, but are now multiple occupancy units. These sub-divided properties, owned sometimes by as many as eight families in some cases, have often blocked the escape routes and fire exits that were always built,” she said.
Today there are a number of newly-rising multi-storey housing blocks which do not have fire escapes or sprinkler systems.
“It’s not that we are not aware of the safety standards and building bylaws; they are all there in the statute books, they are just not enforced,” said Fahim Zaman, a former chief executive of the Karachi Building and Construction Authority (KBCA).
Lari said that initial drawings are approved by the KBCA if building bylaws are followed. But, she added, “There is extreme corruption in the government and they often work in connivance with builders.”
She said that over the years she has seen quality of construction deteriorating rapidly. “It’s all about making money, with little thought given to human lives.”
Bilgrami said there was a coterie of black sheep among the architect fraternity, “briefcase architects,” who are used by unscrupulous builders to get their projects approved by the various landowning and building authorities.
“The builders make their own drawings and use these architects, who though licensed are not doing well in their field, to sign them. In a month, these people get anywhere between 20 to 30 big and small drawings approved.” By contrast, said Bilgrami, he and his staff of 40 can manage a maximum of just three a month.
“We have asked the KBCA repeatedly to give us a list of projects approved monthly so we can see who the architects are, and if we find any misdemeanour, have them expelled from the Pakistan Council of Architects and Town Planners and have their licenses revoked,” said Bilgrami. But, he added: “Because they are all working in collusion, they will not even do that.”
“The engineering company behind the faulty construction of Shershah Bridge, a portion of which collapsed in 2007, was not only exonerated, but is getting handsome contracts from the government to carry out more construction work,” said Zaman.
Five people were killed and 14 others injured when the bridge collapsed.
Zaman told IPS that by law, all factories have to undergo regular inspections. But instead, the civil and defence authority inspectors are paid off well by factory owners to give their buildings a clean chit.
“I blame each and every one in the ministries of labour, industry and commerce and the building industries. As for the owners, they will all try to maximise their profits and minimise their costs,” said a fuming Zaman.
Holding the government responsible for allowing the laws and regulations to be violated, Ameer Nawab, who resigned as labour minister in Sindh just a few days before the incident, said the chief minister had stopped him from taking action against several factories for flouting safety regulations.
“We tried to explain to the chief minister that the cases were already in the court, and could not be withdrawn,” Nawab told IPS.
But he had to give in to the minister’s displeasure over the raids his ministry had carried out. “We stopped the inspections because the chief executive of the province asked us to.”
In a news report by the English daily Express Tribune, Sharafat Ali of the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research, an organisation that works for labour rights, was quoted as saying: “The chief minister issued a verbal order directing officials to suspend the inspection of factories in the province.”
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