It was around 2:45am on January 17. The otherwise congested residential area of Akbarabad in Faisalabad gave a deserted look. The narrow streets that would make navigation difficult for commuters during day time looked empty and wide. No groups of young people stood under the well-lit electric poles, unwinding after a hectic day. It seemed the residents were fast asleep and even those who were awake were wary of going out due to the extremely cold weather.
All of a sudden this rather mysterious silence was broken by the deafening sound of an explosion. Within moments people rushed out of their houses to determine the cause. Soon they realised it was not a bomb blast that they had initially feared. It had something to do with the debris lying all over in the neighbourhood and the scattered bodies. The cries of young men wreathing in pain and calling for help were telling another story.
They discovered that a boiler installed inside a residential property had exploded due to over-heating and uncontrolled pressure. The impact was so intense that the roof caved in, burying a number of workers under it. The locals called the rescue service and started removing the debris on self-help basis. They removed four dead bodies and moved four injured to the nearby Allied Hospital.
Muhammad Jameel, a resident of the area, says this 4-marla house belonged to Gulraiz alias Gullu Sheikh who had declared that he produced straws used to drink beverages which he supplied in the market. But, actually, he had installed a ‘boiler’ and used to dye yarn cones. His workers used the rear entry to avoid disclosure of this fact. Such hazardous activities are not allowed in residential areas, especially when there is no oversight by the concerned departments.
So far no government department is ready to take the responsibility for this tragic accident. On the contrary, they are trying to absolve themselves on technical grounds and on the basis of some lacunae in relevant labour laws. Aslam Meraj, Secretary General, Labour Qaumi Movement (LQM), an active labour union, laments that the district’s labour office is situated at a walking distance from the ill-fated property.
Meraj says the Labour department is giving the excuse that the home-based industrial unit could not be registered under the Factories Act 1934 as it employed only two people. A factory must have at least 10 employees to get registered under this act. The labour department officials claim that all others killed or injured were guests or those who would visit the place at night to sleep there. “The district government also remained inactive and the DCO visited the place for a couple of minutes after the incident. Ridiculously, he announced to seal the factory which was already razed to the ground and left,” says Meraj.
Arif Husain, father of 18-year-old Muhammad Tahir who lost his life in the tragedy, says the boiler was functional and the employees were at work. He says they had worked on Friday (which is a weekly off-day in Faisalabad) and were putting in extra hours when this incident happened.
This cone-dying unit dyed yarn with the help of high pressure steam in an unregistered and makeshift boiler. There was no meter to gauge the pressure which built up to an alarming limit due to overheating and its extraordinarily long operational hours, the father informed TNS. “The risk of boiler blast increases at night as pressure of natural gas increases at this time. There was nobody there who could even manually reduce the flame under the container.”
Hussain, who is shaken to the core, complains they have not been approached by the owner of the factory, concerned officials or the political elite of the area. There was an announcement about compensation by the chief minister of Punjab but there has been no follow-up. He says the owner has escaped and the police have kept his brother into custody.
Surayya Bibi, a widow and mother of 17-year-old Waqas who got seriously injured-in the blast is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The hospital staff is not allowing her to see her son. This raises fearful doubts in her mind about his recovery. She says she has already spent around Rs 30,000 on medicines which had to be bought from the market. “I don’t have any money left and request the government to cover the expenses.”
Imtiaz Ahmad Saifi, District Officer Labour, Faisalabad, says the factory was not registered and therefore could not be inspected in the past. But to discourage such hazardous activity they have launched action and will seal all such establishments operating illegally.
Before the department could move in this regard, the heirs of the deceased and injured employees identified 16 cone dying units, mostly in Islam Nagar area, and locked them. It was a message to the negligent government departments that if ordinary people can act, why can’t they with all the powers and resources at their disposal.
Syed Hasnat Javed, District Officer Labour, Lahore who has also served in Faisalabad says the responsibility of inspecting boilers lies with the office of the Chief Inspector of Boilers which works under the Punjab Industries Department. However, he says, the Labour department can ask the owners of the factories to produce fitness certificates of boilers at the time of inspection. Regarding the Faisalabad incident, he says, it is quite likely that what exploded was a self-engineered container or a makeshift boiler.
Due to the non-application of relevant labour and boiler inspection laws, an FIR under Section 322 and 337 of Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) has been registered against the owner. These clauses cover Qatl-bis-sabab and Shajjah respectively. A person is charged with Qatl-bis-sabab if he, without any intention, causes death of, or causes harm to, any person or does any unlawful act which becomes a cause of death of another person. Punishment for Shajjah is applicable in cases of certain injuries to head and face of a victim. The police have become a complainant in this case.
Muhammad Nawaz Cheema, Chief Boiler Inspector, Punjab denies that a proper boiler was involved in Akbarabad tragedy. Actually, he says, it was a stove covered with a tank that blasted due to high pressure and this fact was discovered during their inspection of the blast sight. He tells TNS they can only inspect the registered boilers and form adhoc committee of 4 or 5 persons under the law to hold inquiry into such incidents. But in this case it was not possible.