Conversations from Bhoiguda: Utter Violation of Safety Measures and Death of 11 Migrant Workers
Eleven migrant workers from Bihar were charred to death in a huge fire at a scrap godown in Bhoiguda, Hyderabad, on 23rd March. According to the Hyderabad Clues team, three reasons triggered the fire: a short circuit caused by poor wiring, a fire extinguisher falling on a trolley parked beside the spiral staircase, which went up in flames, and a gas leak. Whatever be the immediate reason for the fire, it would have been averted if safety measures were strictly put in place as per law. No one has been arrested so far despite a first information report registered under Section 304A (causing death by negligence) against the warehouse owner Sampath.
None of the safety precautions were in place as per applicable laws and the government machinery did not discharge its duty of ensuring mandatory safety measures and of periodically inspecting such godowns and work places. It is obvious that negligence, lack of safety measures, gross violation of laws related to safety at work places and complete violation of implementation of provisions of Factories Act or Shops and Establishments Act are the reasons for the tragic incident in which eleven migrant workers lost their life.
One of the policemen guarding the location said the nameplate of the warehouse was immediately taken down and it was subsequently demolished. According to the police, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Minister G. Kishan Reddy was visiting the site, which was heavily guarded by the police and inaccessible to the public.
The team that visited the site, including the author of this report, noticed the small spiral staircase leading to the small suffocating room on the first floor where the workers were sleeping when the fire broke out. There were no way workers could have escaped the fire but for the way of jumping from terrace to the ground by one worker risking his life. The warehouse, littered with fragments of glass, paper, metal and wood, indicated the dismal living conditions of the migrant workers.
The owner of Golden Cafe, situated at a distance from the warehouse, said “it was a scrap godown, not a timber depot” when asked how often such incidents occur, given that the area was dotted with timber depots. Another owner Lal alleged that similar fires had occurred in the warehouse, “no one had died”. Alleging negligence by Sampath, he said, “This was the fourth or fifth such accident in the last 10-15 years. But these people never learn.”
Urmila, who irons clothes at her shop situated near the warehouse, said she had heard “several rumors” about how accident occurred. It is rumored that a cigarette caused the fire, she said, adding that “migrant workers smoke a lot”. The other rumors she listed were that the fire was caused by a gas cylinder burst or a short circuit. Her mother, Mallamma, who used to iron the clothes of Sampath’s father, said that previous owners were poor and “worked hard to establish the warehouse”.
Both Urmila and Mallamma lamented the pathetic living conditions of workers. Urmila described how it was common for 10-20 migrant workers to live in small rooms with one washroom in their workplaces as they could not afford rented accommodations. Mallamma said such a devastating accident had not occurred in the area in years though “small fires break out once in a while”.
There is another reason why migrant workers are forced to stay in suffocating and dirty rooms in the area. “The residents are worried about the safety of their daughters—they don’t want to rent rooms to these workers,” said Bhikshapati, sitting with a group of men in the neighboring alley. He was disturbed by the accident and lamented the poor living condition of migrant workers.”
It is normal for migrant workers to stay in depots and godowns and work for nominal wages, according to Madan Lal, the owner of Vishwakarma and Himtaji industries. Lal said “The godown was built on leased land” he added that the owners of the godown “easily” pay about one lakh to the property owners. “The deceased workers ate and slept in the same room. The owners do not provide food to the workers. They have to walk to the local mandi and buy vegetables,” said Lal.
Expressing a strong dislike for Sampath, Lal said the workers didn’t return to their state even during the lockdown. “Migrant workers go home only once a year. Such rigid rules apply to workers hired by contractors.” Blaming Sampath for the accident, Lal alleged, “He is responsible for the tragedy. He is a notorious guy who considers the whole road as his property. He causes a lot of trouble in the area.”
The site has been barricaded because several MLAs and MPs from different parties, Telangana Rashtra Samithi, Bhartiya Janta Party and All India Majlis-e-Ittahadul Muslimeen, have been regularly visiting Bhoiguda. “This issue could be politicized. For property or for the elections. Anything is possible,” Lal said.
Lal explained the reason for so many timber factories in the area. “There are 26 factories in this location. Earlier, the timber depots were located in Raniganjh. After a major fire years ago, the state government relocated the timber depots to Bhoiguda.”
The poor living conditions of the migrant workers was confirmed by Yash and his colleagues. Employed at P Balakrishnan Timber Depot, he had left his wife and children in Maharashtra to work in Hyderabad. He and the other workers in the depot, some of whom stay with their families, have been allotted small dingy rooms. Their kids play in the depot, amidst large machinery and thronged with sharp pieces of wood.
According to Lal and the workers, one Gopi is the union leader of the depot. However, Gopi chuckled when asked whether he represented the workers. “There is no union in Bhoiguda,” he said over the phone, adding that he was a “middleman who listens to the problems of the workers”.
The workers were stunned when they were told that Gopi was not their union leader. Sri, a young boy who supplies vegetables and works in the depot, said “Gopi is their union leader” as the workers agreed. He occasionally helps us, especially, when we are sick, they said. However, another worker disapprovingly pointed out that Gopi rarely addresses their issues. Sri quickly agreed, “he does what the management says”.
When asked whether such accidents often occur in the area, one of the workers said that a “minor fire broke out behind the factory around two years ago”.
Gloria, who sells snacks, soft drinks and groceries at JMJ Store, located near the warehouse, expressed grief. “They [workers] were very young. Some of the deceased included children [of the age 19-20]. The workers would often work till 2 a.m. for extra wages. They would drink at times because of the work pressure. I feel terrible about how badly they were treated.”
One of the migrant workers survived the fire. Prem Kumar had jumped from the terrace before the fire engulfed the warehouse, around 3.50 a.m. Subsequently, he was admitted to Gandhi Hospital. A nurse said that Kumar was shifted to Apollo Hospital following the superintendent’s order. When asked for the reason he was shifted, the nurse shrugged “We don’t know. The police ordered for him to be shifted to the private hospital. He was eating well and talking. He was fine.”
The deaths reveal how migrant workers earn a precarious living in inhuman conditions. Left with no choice, the workers in the nearby depots in Bhoiguda have made peace with the situation.
A worker from Uttar Pradesh, hesitant to reveal his name said, “I am working in two different places. I work overtime to earn extra wages as well. I live so far away from my family without being able to see them from months only to ensure that my children study and live a better life. I earn a little despite the extra wages. I have to send some money home and save a little for me” showing his scarred hands he rhetorically asked “Do you think I can eat a little and work this hard? It is impossible. With this income how can I buy food that supports my health?”