Who is responsible?
IN one of the worst industrial tragedies in the country, a fire that erupted on Tuesday in a Karachi garment factory left upwards of 250 people dead, most of them burnt or suffocated as they sought an exit from the inferno. Investigation committees have been constituted and suo motu notice has been taken of the incident by the Sindh High Court.
The same day, some two dozen people were killed — including the factory owner and his son — and several injured when a fire broke out in a shoe factory on Lahore’s Bund Road. The two-storey building had originally been designed as a residence. Over 100 people worked there in shifts but the building had only one entry/exit point. There were 15 drums filled with chemicals on the premises. Apparently, the government of Punjab has formed a committee to investigate the causes behind the tragedy.
In Lahore’s case, did the owners obtain permission to turn the residential building into a commercial one or have a permit for setting up a factory in a residential area? Did they make alterations in the residential building to bring it in line with factories’ building codes? Did the factory have permission to have so many workers in the two-storey structure? Why were there not more exits? Did it have the fire-fighting equipment that is mandatory for commercial buildings, or the permission to store chemicals and was it properly secured?
Accidents can happen even when we take full precautions and abide by all the codes, rules and regulations. But if rules and regulations are implemented, and fully, there is less chance of any accidents happening; moreover, even if an accident occurs, the likelihood of losses is reduced. In Lahore, one report said that the rescue teams had to break through one of the walls to access people trapped inside the building. Had there been more exits, perhaps more people could have been saved.
The responsibility for having an effective industrial/commercial regulatory framework and ensuring its implementation lies squarely with the government. Yet this is where we have every reason to feel completely let down.
About a year ago, a bus full of schoolchildren from Faisalabad had an accident in the Salt Range. It was overloaded and had a brake failure. It was an old vehicle and did not have a permit to be on the Islamabad route. The bus overturned, killing more than 30 children. At least two investigation committees were set up by the government in the wake of the accident and many government functionaries gave assurances that the matter would be thoroughly investigated, the culprits brought to justice and regulatory frameworks tightened to ensure that such tragedies did not take place again.
But what has been the follow-up? Who was held accountable and what regulatory changes were implemented? It is hard to find any reports on the accident beyond those that say that committees have been set up to investigate the matter. Some initial reports blamed the school administration for hiring a substandard vehicle and called for the suspension of a motorway official who had initially stopped the bus but allowed it on its way. But what about the overloading issue? What about the fact that the bus had a road-worthiness certificate that had been issued by the government regulator? What about the integrity of the vehicle’s frame?
Predictably enough, there has been almost no work and/or progress on the issue.
In April, an NGO reported that some 2,000 people had died from CNG cylinder-related explosions in the country in about a year. A quick Google search with ‘CNG tank explosions Pakistan’ as the keywords shows that six people died in such an explosion on May 3, four people on Feb 8, 12 on Dec 21 and five on Dec 18. This is just from the first 10-odd results of the search. Clearly, the cost of CNG cylinder-related accidents is large. But there has never been any systematic effort by any level of government to look at the issue in more detail.
Are these accidents occurring even when due precautions in manufacturing and installation are being taken? If so, and if use of CNG despite precautions is so dangerous, should it be allowed at all? Should we not have this debate in some important fora? And if proper materials are not being used and/or substandard installation is an explanatory variable in the accidents, should not the regulatory framework be tightened to address the issue?
Regulation, in general, has taken a back seat in the last couple of decades where the received wisdom has been that the market can take care of issues and governments need not. But this generalisation is very misleading.
Regulation is sometimes needed to even create space for a market in some areas (securing property rights) and in others to ensure the proper functioning of markets. Profit-seekers tend to take risks and cut corners where they can. But when they are playing with safety regulations and the lives of others, such cutting of corners is criminal and costly.
It is the responsibility of the government, in such cases, to ensure that adequate regulations to protect the consumers and/or workers are in place and are efficaciously implemented. If the government is not ensuring this, it is not fulfilling its responsibilities to the citizens. There are only limited ways citizens can encourage/force the hand of the government. Pleading for the government to act, through the media and by contacting representatives, is one way and citizens/citizen-groups should try this.
But if this does not work — and it has not so far — maybe it is time for such groups to try and initiate criminal proceedings against some of the actors who were responsible for preventing the incidents that have already occurred.
The writer is senior adviser, Pakistan, at Open Society Foundations, associate professor of economics, LUMS, and a visiting fellow at IDEAS, Lahore.