New Delhi, Ahmedabad and Bengaluru: Photographs of sisters Preeti Kumari and Poonam Kumari, and their cousin Madhu, lay propped against an unplastered brick wall in the sisters' home in west Delhi's Ranikhera, when IndiaSpend visited in late November 2022. The photographs had been taken at a wedding on May 12, 2022, a day before all three died in a factory fire in Mundka, 5 km south of Ranikhera. The three sisters were younger than 25 years and supporting their families.

"They should not have gone that day," said frail Usha Devi, Preeti and Poonam's mother. "They were worried about losing their jobs if they did not go." Since the tragedy, her husband Mahipal and brother-in-law Rakesh Kumar, both tailors, say spending time and money in court hearings for the criminal case against the factory owners has become a routine.

Usha Devi at her home in Ranikhera, west Delhi, photographed on November 17, 2022.
The photographs of her daughters' Preeti and Poonam and niece
Madhu, on the wall behind her, were taken a day before the fire in a Mundka factory that killed all three.

That day, at least 27 workers, most of them women, died in the fire in an electronic and surveillance equipment manufacturing factory in Mundka.

Between 2017 and 2020, three people died and 11 were injured each day, on average, due to accidents in India's registered factories, per data from the Ministry of Labour & Employment's Directorate General Factory Advice Service & Labour Institutes (DGFASLI), accessed by IndiaSpend in November 2022 through a Right to Information (RTI) request.

As many as 3,331 deaths were recorded between 2018 and 2020, but only 14 people were imprisoned for offences under the Factories Act, 1948 during the same period, these data show.

DGFASLI collects occupational safety and health (OSH) statistics from state chief inspectors of factories and directors of industrial safety and health. These data represent only registered factories, although about 90% of workers in India are employed in the informal sector.

Each year, over 350,000 deaths worldwide are due to occupational accidents, and these accidents also cause over 313 million serious injuries and absences from work, according to an International Labour Organization report in 2015, which called the human costs of lax investment in OSH to prevent occupational accidents and diseases "unacceptable".

India has passed occupational safety and health law reforms in 2020, but experts say the new OSH Code is less stringent than the Factories Act, 1948, which currently covers labour welfare and safety. Even so, more than two years later, the new OSH Code is yet to be implemented.

In late November 2022, IndiaSpend met injured workers and relatives of workers who have died in accidents in factories and construction sites in Delhi and Ahmedabad, to understand the barriers to recovery and redress. Safety at factories is often lax, support after an accident is inadequate, and financial and job insecurity and government apathy make pursuing a case against owners and/or contractors for compensation or negligence difficult, they told us.

Industrial violations

There were multiple labour and safety violations in the Mundka factory, which was operating without permission from the fire department, according to a fact-finding report by the Working People's Coalition (WPC), a nationwide collective of organisations working on labour issues. The report, published soon after the fire in July 2022, noted that a senior municipal official who was part of the government's enquiry committee into the incident said that the building was located in Mundka's "extended Lal Dora", where industrial units are not allowed.

The lawyer for the factory owners, Nitin Ahlawat, told IndiaSpend that the police have filed a chargesheet for culpable homicide not amounting to murder, while the allegation is of negligence. "We have argued that if it is negligence then it should be Section 304 (A) [causing death by negligence]. There is no malafide [intention]," he said.

In the parts of Mundka which fall in non-conforming zones, where there is no permit for industrial activity, factories and units should not be running, Anurag Saxena, general secretary of the Delhi State Committee of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, told IndiaSpend. "The government says that livelihoods will be lost if such factories are shut, but that cannot be the excuse for compromising workers' safety," said Saxena.

In the Mundka factory fire case, officials were suspended for violations following a government inquiry. While it is not practical to close informal establishments set up outside designated industrial zones, which will impact informal sector employment, generally there is a collusion between all implementing agencies--police, building, labour, fire, and employees--said Dharmendra Kumar, secretary, WPC. "We must eliminate all collusion, punish those who flout laws" which will urge industry to take steps to protect workers, Kumar told IndiaSpend.

Overworked and without training

In August 2022, Aman Shukla's hand was crushed in a power press in Ahmedabad. A migrant from Uttar Pradesh's Basti district, 21-year-old Aman had moved to the city only a few months earlier, and joined the factory as a power press operator a few days before the accident.

Thousands of workers losing their hands and fingers to accidents every year is leading to "human misery and loss of labour-productivity to the industry and the country," said the Crushed2022 report by Safe In India Foundation (SII), a Manesar-based organisation focused on auto workers' safety. The SII report, published in December 2022, analysed injuries and accidents in the auto sector in six states. Many workers in auto-hubs are migrants who are not adequately trained, overworked, and underpaid, the report said.

"Aman did not have proper training [in handling the power press] and had just finished a shift when he was called from home to do another," his visibly distraught father Vidyamani Shukla, a security guard working in Ahmedabad since 2014, told IndiaSpend. Aman has suffered 65% disability due to the accident, per his government-issued disability certificate. "He has become depressed and sad," added Vidyamani, who has been travelling between Ahmedabad and his village in UP, where his son has returned since the accident, to follow up on accident compensation in the labour court.

Aman Shukla's father Vidyamani, a security guard in Ahmedabad, says that his son was not properly trained by the factory to operate the power press.
His son's fingers were crushed in an accident just days after he joined work. Photographed November 21, 2022

Factory deaths and injures, by the numbers

India had 363,442 registered factories in 2020, of which 84% were operational and employed 20.3 million workers, according to the latest available DGFASLI data. On average, 1,109 deaths and more than 4,000 injuries in registered factories were reported each year, in four years to 2020, according to DGFASLI data. Injuries have reduced each year between 2018 and 2020. DGFASLI data for 2021 and 2022 were not available at the time we received the RTI response.

More than one in five injuries and fatalities in factories reported during the four-year period were in Gujarat. Most injuries (192) and deaths (79) in factories in Gujarat were reported in the chemical and chemical products sector in 2019, per Gujarat DGFASLI data.

Based on data IndiaSpend received in response to a RTI request with Delhi's labour department on November 11, 2022, Delhi had 13,464 registered factories as of October 2022, and 118 fatalities and injuries had been reported between 2018 and 2022.

The Delhi labour department's RTI response had also said that safety of informal and unorganised workers which are not related to factories does not come under the provisions of the Factories Act, 1948 and data on accidents among such workers were not compiled.

Labour safety laws have been diluted in name of reforms, say experts

In 2020, the Occupational Safety, Health And Working Conditions Code, 2020 (OSH Code) was passed as labour law reform. The older Factories Act, 1948, which covers workers' safety, health and welfare, however, is stricter than the OSH Code because it made it mandatory for all hazardous factories, irrespective of size, to form a safety committee, while under the OSH code, these may be formed only after a government order or notification, K.R. Shyam Sundar, labour economist and visiting faculty at the New Delhi-based think tank Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), told IndiaSpend. Further, "hazardous factories are under government surveillance, while in non-hazardous factories, safety issues may still be a problem," he added.

The OSH code requires a threshold number of 250 workers in hazardous factories or at least 500 workers in a factory to constitute a safety committee. Further, the factory definition has been changed from 20 to 40 workers for establishments without aid of electric power, and from 10 to 20 workers for those using the aid of power.

Less than a million or 1.4% of establishments in India have more than 10 workers, according to India's sixth economic census conducted from January 2013 to April 2014, the latest such census. Increasing the threshold thus leaves the majority of establishments out of the ambit of the new OSH Code and legal purview of safety requirements.

The OSH Code, though passed in 2020, had not been implemented over two years on, as rules were still being framed by states, the labour ministry informed Parliament in July 2022.

IndiaSpend has asked the labour secretary of the Union government, the Industrial Safety & Health Division of the Ministry of Labour & Employment, and DGFASLI whether data on deaths and injuries occurring in unregistered establishments or factories are compiled, for their comments on concerns over dilution of safety provisions in the new OSH code, and on vacancies in factory-inspecting staff. We will update the article when we receive a response.

Under-reporting of incidents through collusion between companies, hospitals and officials

Aman and 25-year-old factory worker Anil Verma said that they were taken to a private hospital first and were not provided adequate or timely treatment. "Look at my hand. I cannot close my palm. Is this good treatment?" asked Anil.

Anil Verma's fingers were severely injured at work. He wants medical treatment and compensation for his injury and disability.

Labour experts say that workers are taken to local private hospitals where there is collusion and corruption between factory owners or contractors and enforcement authorities, including police, to avoid reporting accidents, and thus legal hassle. Clause 88 of the Factories Act mandates that the manager of a factory must notify concerned authorities about a death or accident due to which a worker is prevented from working for a period of at least 48 hours.

Further, medical officers or doctors have to report all medico legal cases (MLCs) to police under section 39 of the Criminal Procedure Code, failing which they could be prosecuted. The labour ministry's Employees' State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) booklet on MLCs also specifies this.

In practice, unless there is a major accident, there is underreporting and this is reflected in the data, said Sundar. "There is non-reporting by employers because there are procedures like compensation and healthcare that follow reported injuries. If the injured workers are sent to a government hospital, the MLC gets reported to authorities and is not covered up. The issues become institutionally visible."

"When small accidents occur, the site supervisor or contractor takes the victim to a private hospital," Mahesh Gajera, programme manager, Aajeevika Bureau, an organisation that works on migrant worker welfare in south Rajasthan and urban centres in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka, told IndiaSpend.

Workers are usually taken to a private hospital after an accident because the treatment is faster and there are delays in government hospitals, a contractor in Gujarat who spoke on condition of anonymity, told IndiaSpend. Following the Mundka fire, the families IndiaSpend met said that they waited for nearly a month for bodies to be handed over after a DNA test by the authorities.

Companies are worried about their image if there is an accident and unlike a private hospital, they will have to inform authorities at a government hospital which can create problems, said Lalji Chudasama, administrator, industrial relations and legal at construction and real estate firm Shapoorji Pallonji Group (SPG), headquartered in Mumbai. Chudasama has worked in the construction sector for 17 years. "In order to avoid being named in FIRs [First Information Reports to the police], people find ways out. Employers or contractors want to mediate or find a compromise and avoid an FIR," said Chudasama.

"But in case of a large accident [like Mundka], people are taken to a government hospital where procedures tend to be followed."

In Aman's case, the police were not willing to file a report initially until a complaint to senior officers, Vidyamani alleged. In most cases, the police are reluctant to file a FIR, and instead file an Accidental Death Report in case of death, said Ranjeet Kumar Kori, a legal consultant in Ahmedabad. He confirmed that a complaint was filed after a few days in Aman's case and forwarded to the labour department. IndiaSpend was unable to reach the police sation where the complaint was filed.

This was underscored by a study in Gujarat's neighbouring Union territory of Daman and Diu and Dadra and Nagar Haveli (DD&DNH). Police and government health facilities underestimated deaths and injuries, with under-reporting more pronounced in police records, a 2019 analysis of industrial safety in Dadra and Nagar Haveli by Sajjan S. Yadav, who was health secretary of the Union territory at the time, had found. Despite the requirement that every death case must be reported to the police and must get converted into an FIR, the police captured "only 30% of the deaths while health facilities captured 70% of the estimated deaths", in 2017. Police captured only 3.1% of the estimated injuries and health facilities 44%.

Thousands of industries were set up in the Union territory after policies incentivising investment there were implemented in the early 1970s, Yadav's study said. The small territory by 2020 had more than double the number of registered factories (4,989) as Odisha (1,987), with 60 times the population. Yet DD&DNH had just one inspector for its nearly 5,000 factories by that year, compared to 86 factories per inspector in Odisha.

Company responsibilities transferred to labour contractors

Unless there is public attention, like in the case of the Mundka fire where the owners were arrested, it is unlikely that owners or the principal employer will be named in FIRs, and responsibility will be borne by contractors or subcontractors who recruit workers, said labour welfare experts.

Usually, workers are from the contractor's village or family, so there is pressure on both parties in case of accidents, said Aajeevika's Gajera. Because of this relationship, "the contractors are expected to compensate [the worker] and the owner goes scot-free. Workers and contractors assume that it was their mistake," he said. "That's how the labour system is working, although the law places the responsibility on the principal employer also."

A Gujarat contractor, who began as a worker in the early 1990s and is now a licensed contractor with nearly 400 workers, alleged that despite training, workers tend to be careless. "I inform them to not be intoxicated and not to come in for work if they are unwell," said the contractor, who wanted to be anonymous. "But workers ignore advice."

Anil, the factory worker, has been unable to straighten the fingers in his right hand which were crushed and nearly severed while operating a machine in a chemical factory in Ahmedabad in January 2021. He was accused of working under the influence of alcohol after his accident. "The contractor was lying," Anil alleged.

Workers would not participate in trade unions because of a fear that they could lose their jobs and because supervisors and contractors controlled wage payments, leaves and so on, found a 2017 V.V. Giri National Labour Institute research report on workplace health and safety in Delhi's small scale manufacturing units. Workers negotiated wages personally on the basis of village and kinship ties, as well as through their relationship with the employer.

No data on construction sector

DGFASLI data do not cover workers who are employed in the construction sector, where 26 million workers are employed, the third most after agriculture and domestic work, per labour ministry data.

In Gujarat, based on RTI data collated from FIRs from various police stations from 2008 to 2021 by Vipul Pandya, general secretary, Bandkam Mazdoor Sangathan, a construction workers union in Ahmedabad, at least 1,280 workers had died and 443 were injured.

In Ahmedabad, 19-year-old Bhilwar Jignesh Ramsubhai has been confined to his bed for more than two months after he fractured his feet in two places in September 2022, when construction debris fell on him. A migrant construction worker from Dahod, 200 km east of Ahmedabad, the teenager lives in rented accommodation costing Rs 4,000 a month, and earns around Rs 500 as daily wage. Much of his day since the accident is spent near the television set now.

"My mother has gone to the village to borrow money as we have run out of our savings and Rs 40,000 paid by the contractor is over," said Jignesh, whose father is a small farmer. "If they do not pay I will have to think about filing a case. I cannot take too much weight and working [in construction] will become difficult. I am worried."

More than one in four factory inspector posts are vacant

"Workers' lives are not taken seriously," said Pandya. Usually if there is a fatal accident, the factory inspector will visit and file remarks or a report that would require compliance, but there is no follow up, he said.

In 2020, only 69% of 1,040 sanctioned posts for factory inspectors were filled, that is one factory inspector for 412 working factories. In Gujarat, there is one inspector for 453 working factories, while in Delhi, there is one factory inspector for 973.

Inspectors are recruited to ensure proper implementation of the Factories Act, but the total strength of inspectors has reduced and the government has allowed self-certification, Pandya said. "There is no law that can be self-enforced. Then there is corruption. All this leads to accidents."

Due to reforms that have supported businesses, inspections have become liberalised, said IMPRI's Sundar. "Usually inspectors will check records and injuries and procedural issues will be revealed," he said. But 2015 onwards, the norms in states have been liberalised so much that it may have affected reporting and data collation.

Compensation and fines

Most families of the Mundka victims have received ex gratia payments from the Union and Delhi government, but continue to wait for the compensation that should be awarded under the Employee's Compensation Act, 1923. The process is underway and they are hoping it will be completed soon.

"We received ex gratia of Rs 12 lakh from the government, but compensation [from owners] is still pending, though money cannot compensate for our loss," said Chaman Singh Negi, a neighbour of Usha Devi, who lost his 45-year-old wife Bharti Devi in the Mundka factory fire.

Chaman Singh Negi (foreground) and Ram Bhawan Chauhan lost their wives in the Mundka factory fire.
While they have received ex gratia payments from the union and state governments, they have not received compensation from the factory owner.

Negi is entitled to Rs 12.93 lakh, which has been calculated based on the wages that were being received by his wife and her age at death, a relevant factor under the Compensation Act. According to the RTI response from the deputy labour commissioner of Delhi's south-west district, Rs 3.5 crore were given as compensation to victims of that area between 2018 and 2022.

Ahlawat, the lawyer of the factory owner said that "the needful will be done," to compensate those who died--including those who may not have been registered under the ESIC--based on the decision of authorities. "Those covered under ESIC will receive the benefits and, voluntarily, we have informed the court that we will try to compensate [families] those who have died in the premises."

While there have been 14,710 convictions under Section 92 (general penalty for offences) and 96A (penalty for contravention of the provisions relating to hazardous process) of the Factories Act, 1948 only 14 people were imprisoned between 2018 and 2020, according to data. During the same period, Rs 20 crore ($2.4 million) worth of fines were imposed on violators.

In Delhi, between 2018 and October 2022, 204 prosecutions have been filed and 224 have been decided, according to the labour department's December 8 RTI response.

There are many cases where it becomes difficult to establish the relation between owner and workers because there is no documentation. "We can send a notice and often we do not receive a response. We then ask for records including attendance, but there can be delays in getting that data too," said Kori, the legal consultant.

Aman, Jignesh and Anil have only received money which can cover basic medical costs. They have not been compensated for job loss or disability due to the accidents, they say. "I will wait for some more time. If I do not get support I will think about filing a case," said Jignesh.

Families like Usha Devi's require monetary help and rehabilitation particularly when an earning member dies in a factory accident. "Compensation is monetary. They need psycho-social support and alternate livelihood, especially [when] elderly were dependent on them [victims]," said Dharmendra Kumar of WPC.

Safety committees should be mandatory even for smaller factories

The Factories Act suffers from three issues; the entire universe of factories is not covered, outsourcing of work has reduced the number of workers (fewer than 10) and puts them outside the ambit of the Act, and labour departments are understaffed to handle the Act's requirements, said Sundar, the labour economist.

With better technology used in hazardous factories the number of workers has also reduced. There is a need to ensure that safety clauses should be applicable at least to factories employing 40 workers and above, and later to other classes, said Sundar. Even if self-certification is permitted or random inspections are conducted, there must be a data-based special report on industrial accidents by inspectors, which will advise employers.

SII's Crushed2022 report for the auto sector recommended that companies' OSH policy should ensure contract workers be placed at par with permanent workers, initiate safety audits and training, improve transparency and accountability of accident reporting in the supply chain, and reward the safest factories.

Pandya of Bandkam Mazdoor Sangathan feels that there is need for safety committees to be more proactive and participatory, and not just exist on paper, and added that if mistakes are made, owners and contractors should be willing to admit it to diagnose a problem. "Health and safety requires all stakeholders to work collectively."

SPG's Chudasama suggested a professional approach to safety where workers are repeatedly trained and supervised by employers. Workers' welfare like food, stay and sanitation has to be taken care of to reduce any stress.

The families of the Mundka fire victims want exemplary punishment for employers for their suffering and loss. "If they had shown remorse or met and apologised to us we may not even have pursued a case," said Negi.

Ashok Kumari of Centre for Education and Communication helped with the reporting in Delhi.

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