After 11 Migrants Die in Hyderabad Godown Fire, Others Make Peace with Fate
Eleven migrant workers from Bihar were charred to death in a huge fire at a scrap godown in Bhoiguda, Hyderabad, on March 23. 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. 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.
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) MLA Kishan Reddy was supposed to visit the site, which was out of bounds for the public.
The team that visited the site, including this writer, saw a staircase leading to a small suffocating room on the first floor where the workers were sleeping when the fire broke out. The room, which was littered with glass fragments, paper and pieces of metal, showed the dismal living conditions of the deceased 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 resident said he had never ever heard of such a tragic accident in the locality.
Urmila, who irons clothes at her shop located near the godown, said she had heard “several rumours” about how accident occurred. It is rumoured that a cigarette caused the fire, she said, adding that “migrant workers smoke a lot”. Another rumour is that the fire was caused by a gas cylinder burst and 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. “Often 10-20 workers lived in the small room with one washroom in the warehouse as they could not afford a rented accommodation,” Urmila said. Mallamma said such a tragic 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 neighbouring alley. Though disturbed by the accident and lamenting the poor living condition of migrant workers, he said that workers “drink and smoke at night”.
Bhikshapati concurred with Mallamma regarding the rarity of such tragedies in the locality despite minor fires.
It is normal for migrant workers to stay in depots and godowns and work for nominal wages, according to Madan Lal, the owner of Vishvakarma and Himtaji industries. “The godown was built on leased land. The deceased workers ate and slept in the same room.”
Expressed 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.”
Though Lal alleged that similar fires had occurred in the area, “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 people never learn.”
The site was barricaded because several MLAs from different parties, Telangana Rashtra Samithi, BJP and All India Majlis-e-Ittahadul Muslimeen or AIMIM, have been regularly visiting Bhoiguda. “This issue could be politicised. 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.”
Regarding the allegations of drinking and smoking by migrant workers and the lack of trust of the residents, Lal said that he had “never heard of an incident where any worker had harassed women or misbehaved with anyone.”
The poor living conditions of 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 other migrants workers, some of whom stay with their families, have been allotted small dingy rooms. The kids play in the depot, strewn 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 too stunned believe that Gopi was not their union leader. Sri, a young boy who supplies vegetables and lives in the depot, said “Gopi is their union leader” as the workers agreed. He occasionally helps the workers, especially, when they are sick, they said. However, another worker said that Gopi rarely addresses their issues.
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. 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, who was shifted to Apollo Hospitals following the superintendent’s order, is doing well.
The deaths show how migrant workers earn a precarious living in inhuman conditions. Left with no choice, these workers in nearby depots in Bhoiguda have made peace with the situation. A worker from Uttar Pradesh, hesitant to reveal his name, showed his scarred hands. “I am working in two shifts at different places so that children can study and live a better life. The compensation announced by Prime Minister Modi and chief minister KCR is more than I can ever earn. If they promise to compensate my family for my death, I am ready to die,” he said.
The writer is a law student and is interested in labour jurisprudence, feminist political economy and trade unionism in India. She was part of a student activists team from AISA that visited the area.
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