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Handbag Factory Fire Kills 43 in India

A fire broke out Sunday at a handbag factory in Delhi, India, and as many as 43 workers are dead.

Local media has called the blaze that ripped through the four-story building in the old quarter of Anaj Mandi “the second deadliest fire incident in Delhi.”

According to reports, as many as 100 workers were sleeping in the factory—which was operating illegally and did not have fire safety clearance—when the fire started at approximately 5 a.m. Many of the deceased perished because of partially blocked exits and several sealed windows, the Times of India reported.

It took more than 150 firefighters nearly five hours to contain the flames at the building that housed manufacturing units for handbags and cardboard, among other goods.

Asphyxiation was a leading cause of death, said Sunil Choudhary, deputy chief fire officer.

Of the 43 dead and more than a dozen more injured, two were minors, though it hasn’t yet been confirmed whether the minors sleeping inside the factory were in fact working there.

While officials have not confirmed the source of the blaze, it may have been prompted by a short-circuit and then spread quickly thanks to combustible materials in the space, like cardboard, packaging materials and some garments. Reports also say overhead wires were dangling within the units, and despite repeated complaints, government agencies did not take any action.

The factory owner and manager have both been arrested on charges of culpable homicide and negligent conduct with respect to fire, according to the Times.

The office of the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, who called the incident “extremely horrific” tweeted Sunday that the next of kin of the deceased will receive 200,000 Indian rupees ($2,816) and those injured will be given 50,000 rupees ($704) each. For context, the minimum wage for unskilled workers in the country is 14,842 rupees ($209) per month.

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Sunday’s factory fire has sparked controversy in the country as fingers are pointed at various potentially culpable parties.

“It has become a common thing now. Such incidents happen, inquiry is conducted but the government does not do anything,” Vijay Goel, senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) political party and former Union minister, told the Times. “Factories running in residential areas are to be provided plots at alternative places but the government did not do it.”

India’s ruling party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), charges, however, that the BJP is to blame because it is responsible for issuing licenses for running manufacturing units in residential areas.

Ministries in the country are also involved in the melee and blaming.

“I went to the spot, saw a mesh of overhanging wires. It was bound to happen. The power department is responsible for it,” Bihar state Water Resources Minister Sanjay Jha told the Times. “The Bihar CM is monitoring the situation and I believe the death toll will cross 43.”

Though details about the cause of the fire were not immediately available, New Delhi’s lax enforcement of fire and building safety have been blamed for similar incidents in the past.

“These unnecessary deaths and other recent tragic building incidents show the urgent need for transparent and credible enforcement of fire and building safety regulations throughout India’s industrial sector,” the Clean Clothes Campaign, a consortium of labor-rights groups, wrote in a statement.

“Existing inspection systems, including the corporate social auditing firms used by multinationals to check on their supplier factories, have thus far failed to structurally improve factory safety across the country,” the group added.

Campaigners questioned why workers were present on a weekend when the factory was not operating.

“If workers were sleeping at the factory because they could not afford housing or transportation costs, then this tragedy sheds a light on the poverty wages pervasive throughout the industrial sector, especially among vulnerable groups such as migrant workers and minors,” the Clean Clothes Campaign said.

Additional reporting by Jasmin Malik Chua.