Enquiries continue into the circumstances surrounding the fire in a garment factory in Baldia that took 289 lives last week. The tribunal investigating the fire has heard detailed and sometimes conflicting accounts, but a window is already opening on just how big the failure of fire-safety is in our largest city. The head of the tribunal on Tuesday put his finger on it when he asked the head of the fire service about the lack of fire-safety in banks, shopping malls and high-rise housing and offices. The head of the fire service replied that the city’s fire service was under-equipped and required at least 50 ‘snorkels’ to cover the city. Additionally, the reach of the tallest snorkel currently in service is 100 feet. One only has to cast an eye around the skyline of Karachi to know this is woefully inadequate. He confirmed that many of the types of building enquired after by the tribunal chair were indeed without fire-escapes or fire-fighting equipment. Given the substandard quality of construction and electrical installations across the country, there are millions who risk their lives every day merely by attending their workplace.
As to the Baldia fire, there is still no certainty as to what caused it. The fire chief and the electrical inspector are unsure if it was caused by a short-circuit or some other means, and the basement of the building was said to be still too hot for detailed examination. This contradicted the preliminary report of the police investigation team, which identified the cause as an electrical fault. Rehman Malik added nothing to the understanding of the case by saying that terrorism could not be ruled out. The head of the tribunal has directed the various parties to come up with, and agree on, one source for the fire. Conflicts such as this demonstrate poor communication and coordination, and perhaps a lack of forensic capacity. Independent experts are to be consulted, which is never a good indicator of the strength of local capacities. For anything to change as a result of the Baldia fire, a number of paradigms are going to have to shift – from the design of buildings to an acceptance and implementation of safety codes to reinstating factory and building inspectorates nationwide. They were stopped in Sindh in 2003 on the complaint of factory owners, alleging corruption in the inspectorates. Rooting out the corruption rather than shutting down the inspectorate is not a solution likely to occur to our leaders and rulers. Pakistan is building ever larger and taller buildings of all types and, unless the safety and fire-control infrastructure is developed alongside these structures, they are nothing less than disasters in the making.