Huge fire at New Delhi handbag factory kills 43 workers

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A relative of a victim of a fire that swept through a factory where laborers were sleeping, cries outside a hospital mortuary in New Delhi. (Reuters)
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Police stand guard as onlookers gather near the site of a fire that swept through a factory where laborers were sleeping, in New Delhi. (Reuters)
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Ambulences and a firefighting vehicle at the scene of a deadly New Delhi fire that swept through a factory where laborers were sleeping. (ANI via Reuters)
Updated 08 December 2019

Huge fire at New Delhi handbag factory kills 43 workers

  • No details immediately available on the cause of the fire
  • Delhi state government to conduct a probe and action taken against those responsible for the fire

NEW DELHI: A fire believed to be caused by an electrical short circuit engulfed a building in India’s capital on Sunday where handbags and other items were made by workers earning as little as 2 dollars per day, killing at least 43 people.
The blaze in New Delhi’s Karol Bagh neighborhood, a warren of narrow alleyways with electrical wiring strung helter-skelter, was the second major fire there this year. In February, 17 people were killed in a blaze that started in a six-story building’s illegal rooftop kitchen.
Karol Bagh contains the city’s largest wholesale market for household goods, known as Sadar Bazaar. The area’s aging buildings are stacked with apartments, shops, storage facilities and manufacturing units.
Assistant New Delhi police commissioner Anil Kumar Mittal said that “the fire appears to have been caused by an electric short circuit,” adding that authorities were investigating whether the factory was operating legally. Building laws and safety norms are routinely flouted in New Delhi, making fires common.
The building’s owner, Rihan, who goes by one name, was detained on suspicion of culpable homicide not amounting to murder, Mittal said.
Firefighters had to fight the blaze from 100 meters (yards) away because it broke out in one of the area’s many alleyways, tangled in electrical wire and too narrow for vehicles to access, authorities said.
A resident of the area, Mohammed Naushad, said he was woken by people wailing at around 4:30 a.m. He went outside to find smoke and flames shooting out of a building near Sadar Bazaar. Inside, he found the fourth floor engulfed in flames. One floor below, he saw “20 to 25 people lying on the floor.”
“I don’t know if they were dead or unconscious, but they were not moving,” Naushad said.
He said he carried at least 10 people out of the flames on his shoulders and into the arms of emergency responders.
Maisuma Bibi, a day laborer making plastic handbags, survived the blaze. She said she was sleeping in a room with about 18 other women and children on the building’s first floor when she woke to find a bag full of plastic parts on fire. Her brother-in-law carried her to safety, she said.
Outside a mortuary that was guarded by dozens of police officers, some of the workers’ relatives said they had received phone calls from the men trapped inside, who begged them to call the fire brigade. Family members identified the dead from photos on police officers’ phones.
Many of the men were migrant workers from the impoverished border state of Bihar in eastern India, relatives said. They earned as little as 150 rupees ($2.10) per day making handbags, caps and other garments, sleeping at the factory between long shifts.
Many of the victims were asleep when the blaze began, according to Yogesh, a police spokesman who uses one name.
Dr. Kishore Singh said rescuers brought victims to his government-run hospital and two others in the city. Another 16 people were being treated for burns or smoke inhalation and were in stable condition, Singh said.
Police barred relatives from entering Lok Nayak hospital, where some of the victims were taken. Relatives of the workers cried, consoled one another and jostled for information.
“I was told by someone my nephew is inside, but I haven’t seen him,” said Mohammad Moti, who was searching for his 22-year-old nephew, Mohammad Chedi.
Fire Services chief Atul Garg said it took 25 fire trucks to put out the blaze. About 60 people, including some of the dead, were taken out of the building, said Mittal, the assistant police commissioner.
New Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, appeared at the scene of the fire, promising victims’ families compensation.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the fire as “extremely horrific.”
“My thoughts are with those who lost their loved ones. Wishing the injured a quick recovery,” Modi tweeted.


A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

Updated 22 January 2020

A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

  • Will give migrants a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes torn apart by partition of 1947

NEW DELHI: Sparsh Ahuja and Ameena Malak grew up listening to their grandparents narrate stories of the partition from 1947.
Ahuja’s grandfather, Ishar Das Arora, was 7 years old when the Indian subcontinent was divided into two by the British, creating India and Pakistan. 
More than 14 million people were displaced at the time, and about one million perished in the fighting that followed.
Arora moved from a Pakistani village, named Bela, to Delhi after living in several refugee camps and escaping the violence.
Meanwhile, Malak’s grandfather, Ahmed Rafiq, moved from the Indian city of Hoshiarpur to Pakistan’s Lahore.
Now in their 70s, both the grandparents yearn to go back home and see the places where they were born and spent their childhoods. 
However, the constant uncertainty in the relationship between India and Pakistan and their old age has made the task of visiting their respective birthplaces extremely difficult.
To fulfill the wishes of their grandparents, and several others who yearn to visit their ancestral homelands, Ahuja and Malak decided to launch Project Dastaan (story).
“What started as an idea for a student project last year at Oxford University became a larger peace-building venture,” Ahuja, the director of the project, said.
Project Dastaan is a university-backed virtual reality (VR) peace-building initiative reconnecting displaced survivors of partition with their childhood through bespoke 360-degree digital experiences.
Backed by the South Asia Programme at Oxford, it uses VR headsets to give these migrants, who are often over 80 years old, a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes. It shows them the people and places they most want to see again by finding the exact locations and memories that the survivors seek to revisit, and recreates them.
“It is a creative effort to start a new kind of conversation based on the direct experience of a now-foreign country in the present, rather than relying upon records and memories from the past,” Ahuja told Arab News.
He added that Pakistan-based Khalid Bashir Rai “teared up after his VR experience, and told us we had transported him back” to his childhood.
“At its heart, the project is a poignant commentary on its own absurdity. By taking these refugees back we are trying to highlight the cultural impact of decades of divisive foreign policy and sectarian conflict on the subcontinent. This is a task for policymakers, not university students. In an ideal world, a project like this shouldn’t exist,” Ahuja said.
Other members of Project Dastaan — Saadia Gardezi and Sam Dalrymple — have a connection with partition, too. Gardezi grew up with partition stories; her grandmother volunteered at refugee camps in Lahore, and her grandfather witnessed terrible violence as a young man.
Dalrymple’s grandfather had been a British officer in India during the twilight years of the British Empire. So scarred was he by the partition that he never visited Dalrymple’s family in Delhi, even after 30 years of them living there.
“I think Dastaan is ultimately about stripping away the layers of politics and trying to solve a very simple problem: That children forced to leave their homes, have never been able to go back again,” Dalrymple told Arab News.
Ahuja added: “The partition projects are a peace offering in the heart of hostility. It is an attempt at creating a wider cultural dialogue between citizens and policymakers of the three countries.”
The project aims to reconnect 75 survivors of the partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh with their childhood memories, when the subcontinent observes 75 years of partition in 2022.
Project Dastaan is also producing a documentary called “Child of Empire” that will put viewers in the shoes of a 1947 partition migrant, and will be shown at film festivals and museums.