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Delhi Anaj Mandi Fire: What Can Govt Do to Prevent Such Tragedies?

Why not have a framework to monitor unsafe buildings or workplaces? What’s stopping us?

Published
Opinion
4 min read
Image used for representational purposes.
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Walk past the door of any decent business establishment in India these days and chances are that you see the company's GST number displayed prominently as required by law. Industrial areas also often have boards that say ‘Child Labour Not Allowed’ or ‘No Child Labour’.

So what stops us from having a similar transparent system to ensure that residential buildings do not collapse, killing helpless inhabitants — as it has repeatedly happened in Mumbai — or factory buildings do not catch fire and choke unsuspecting workers to death, as it happened this week in Delhi's congested Anaj Mandi area that is pretty close to the trendy Connaught Place?

Blame it on the money.

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Can We Avoid Repeated Tragedies?

For some reason, the government seems to accord higher priority to the financial aspects of industries rather than things that concern the health and safety of workers. Or it gets stuck in Catch-22 situations that involve inhabitants reluctant to act for want of alternatives. To make matters worse, politicians step into the tragedies after they have taken place, fake sympathy and/or empathy, and blame their political rivals. The government spends tonnes of rupees on ex-gratia payments to victims — resulting, ironically, in economic costs to the taxpayer, that could well be avoided if the cost of threats to safety was measured upfront than in situations where lives have been endangered or lost.

Can something be done to check the repetition of tragedies? The answer is an emphatic YES.

All you have to do is to look at how the government manages its money — and apply the same technologies to manage public hazards such as unsafe buildings and accident-prone areas. Using this, it is possible to punish erring officers, incentivise people to shift to safer buildings, or impose fines to disincentivise owners from carrying on with unsafe businesses — just like pollution monitoring in cars to check emission levels.

Need for Framework to Monitor Unsafe Buildings & Offices

The government now has powerful information technology to manage its goods and services tax (GST), maintained by Infosys that won a Rs 1,300-crore-plus contract. The Finance Ministry has a Central Economic Intelligence Bureau (CEIB) as a nodal agency to track economic offences. India also has a Tax Information Network aimed at modernising the collection, processing, monitoring and accounting of tax collections and also a separate plan to use big data analytics to check tax evasion.

Ask yourself a simple question: Why not a similar framework to monitor unsafe buildings or workplaces?

Using a combination of helpful citizens who can monitor buildings or factories, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) focused on public safety and health, and compulsory disclosures by companies and building owners (along the lines already implemented for child labour and GST), the government can have a pro-active approach to monitoring safety status in buildings and factories.

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Avoid ‘Inspector Raj’ Syndrome

India has an elaborate Factories Act framed in 1948 and numerous other legal provisions for occupational safety. We need to get tech-savvy and add transparency to give real teeth to these laws. What is to be avoided is the Inspector Raj syndrome in which safety officials sleep on the job, or take bribes to give fake No Objection Certificates. By simply building a combination of social activism and centralised monitoring (aided by visually rich maps, just like your Uber ride), it is possible to create a culture of whistle-blowing, in which any unsafe structure or practice can be flagged and tracked.

All you have to do is add an RTI layer. Imagine you walk past a building that has no sign displaying a safety certificate, or displays one that doesn’t tally with the state of the building you see.

Can you call up a public safety telephone number, just like you would call a helpline for women's safety, or file an RTI (right to information) application to see if the certificate is good enough? You get the picture. The kind of fire that killed 43 workers in Delhi this week is just the kind of stuff that could have been red-flagged months earlier, if not years.

The Way Forward

As one international site on the issue puts it, “When inspections meet business analytics, owners and managers have unprecedented capability to combat minor issues before they become lawsuits.”

Public health and safety activists typically tend to be less tech-savvy than they should be.

If we only adapt for factories and homes the technologies that financiers and tax officials use to track and act on investments and revenue collections, India might well be a safer place. A small part of ex-gratia payments diverted to a hazard prevention network might well do the trick.

(The writer is a senior journalist who has covered economics and politics for Reuters, The Economic Times, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He tweets @madversity. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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