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Backstory: The Mundka Fire and Fatal Flaws in Media Reportage

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

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The blaze of May 13 that engulfed a four-storied structure housing the Cofe Impex Pvt Ltd unit manufacturing electronic and surveillance equipment in Delhi’s Mundka Industrial Area, received a little more media attention than many other industrial calamities of its kind.

This could be because it was located in a major industrial hub of the national capital or because of something as peripheral as the incident having occurred on a slow news day – allowing for more space to be devoted to it. 

Media persons, interestingly, reported not just from the site of the four-storied building that had caught fire but from poor neighbourhoods like Bhagya Vihar close by, from where this unit drew its labour force. The Amar Ujala’s report, to take an example, attempted to capture the scene: “Har gali mein maatam ke beechch-beechch mein rone ki aawaz…(‘Amidst every lane enshrouded in mourning could be heard the sounds of wailing…’).”

Such reporting provided a glimpse of the desperate cycle of post-pandemic poverty that forced people, mostly migrants, to work for salaries which were less than half the state’s stipulated minimum wage. 

The Wire carried a particularly poignant interview with Nassem Ansari, a father of two daughters still looking for his wife, Asiya, who was working in the packing unit at Cofe Impex Pvt and whose body he has not been able to recover (‘Waiting for His Wife, Missing After Mundka Fire’, May 17). What is striking about his story is the never ending cycle of precarity of life and livelihood that marks it. The ground beneath his feet keeps constantly shifting. Last year he lost the top digits of his index and middle fingers of his left hand in what he describes as a “hydraulic press machine accident” while at work. He had received no compensation for his disability and loss of livelihood for a year. Today, his wife who joined the workforce so as to earn something to ensure an education for their children, is untraceable. 

Naseem Ansari. Photo: Anumeha Yadav

Over the years people like Nassem Ansari have fallen off the grid in terms of coverage afforded by a media system now focused solely on power politics and urban big spenders.

It was only after the fire that we came to learn about the innumerable material conditions that had created the conflagration, thanks to the painstaking piecing together of the big picture by media persons and labour activists (Delhi Mundka Factory Fire: A Culpable Homicide Occurred Due to States Negligence and Ignorance’ by Working Peoples Coalition and ‘Ease of Doing Violations – Mundka Factory Fire and Pattern of Criminal Negligence in Delhi’s Industrial Areas’, a report by Collective Delhi).

We learnt how this particular building did not have aNo Objection’ Certificate from the fire department; how in fact it did not have clearances from the Municipal Corporation of Delhi for industrial use; how at the time of the fire, nobody was occupying the post of licensing inspector of the Mundka industrial area; how a factory licence was procured for the building through a self-assessment scheme and how, despite it being later cancelled, industrial operations continued to take place within its premises; how this large structure had only one staircase and the exit to the top floor was locked; how a liquor store was allowed to operate here; how workers were expected to keep their mobile phones at the factory entrance.

These and innumerable other details that have only now surfaced, raise the question whether, if the media had regularly reported on labour issues, a tragedy of these proportions could have been averted. 

Labour reportage in India suffer from several fatal flaws, which became far more pronounced from the 1990s onwards when the consumer and the market, rather than the citizen and the country, became central to media functioning. The first of these was of course the disappearance of the Labour beat and the undermining of the unions representing media workers (‘Rough Edges: The Vanishing Tribe of Labour Reporters’, January 31, 2018).

Interesting, what became of the Labour beat within the newsroom, as observers like P. Sainath have reminded us. It migrated and melded into the Business section. This meant, of course, that it was the ease of business tycoons in making their millions that mattered, not the easing of the deprivations of millions of working people.

Labourers on their way to their home after the end of their work, on the eve of International Labour Day, in Moradabad, Saturday, April 30, 2022. Photo: PTI

A lack of contextualisation is the second major flaw. A conspicuous aspect of the Mundka fire were the clear links it showed between politicians, the local civil administration, the owners of the building, and the police. Although there were tangential references, none of the reporting overtly captured this collusion. Similarly, there was almost no reference to the four labour codes, pushed through parliament by the Modi government almost as hurriedly as the three farm laws. These have severely undermined even the feeble regulatory framework of an earlier period, especially compromising the working conditions of those working in small units such as this one. 

Also read | New Labour Codes: After Rushing Them Through Parliament, Why is the Govt Delaying Implementation?

The third flaw is the blatant lack of follow-up. The Mundka fire took place on May 13, but it has already been consigned to the grey space of media amnesia. Apart from the occasional news brief about DNA evidence of bodies burnt beyond recognition, the story is dead.

It is this deliberate forgetfulness that allows those directly responsible for such calamities to bide their time and walk free when conditions turn favourable – as indeed they will given the right contacts and the right pay-offs.

The report of the Collective Delhi, referenced earlier in this column, rightly highlighted the unsuitable language deployed by the media to describe developments of this kind – the fourth fatal flaw. It points out, for instance, how incidents of this kind are routinely described as a “tragic accident”. As the Collective points out, the use of a word like ‘accident’ is completely inappropriate and masks the fact that “the overwhelming majority of the industrial injuries are caused due to inadequate safety measures ensured by the owners to extract maximum profit.”

Representative image of a sewage worker with no protective gear. Photo: Flickr/International Labour Organization (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Using such descriptors amounts to actually letting those responsible for these fatalities to exonerate themselves since according to the law (Section 80 of the IPC), “Nothing is an offence which is done by accident or misfortune”.

Every incident like the Mundka fire provides us a fleeting glimpse of an ongoing calamity below the surface: the raging inferno in which norms, procedures, protections and expectations of justice are being incinerated.

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Editorial wisdom

It’s galling, the conspicuous role being played by many Big Media actors to ensure that a million mutinies keep raging across the country over temples and mosques. We badly need wise counsel to counter this current streak of insanity marking society and politics. The courts have very often failed to provide this, which is why newspapers editorials in these fraught times assume importance.

The three editorials of May 18 on the Gyanvapi Mosque put out by The Hindustan Times, The Times of India and The Indian Express set important parameters. The HT editorial I found to be too fuzzy. Although it notes that the newspaper had always held that eroding the mandate of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, would open a “Pandora’s Box of religious strife”, the editorial prefers to confine itself to calling for the “court” to take a decision, without suggesting what it may be. 

The TOI editorial was far more direct, and emphatically argued for why the 1991 Act needs to be upheld in letter and spirit – pointing out the raison d’etre for settling for August 15, 1947 as the cut-off date in the Act: it marked, the transition of India from colony to nation-state. 

The Indian Express went the furthest in its editorial stance, explaining the significance of the 1991 Act. It recalled that the Ayodhya judgment of 2019 saw the Act as operationalising the state’s “constitutional obligations to uphold the equality of all religious and secularism which is part of the basic features of the Constitution”. 

The TOI followed up its earlier editorial statements with an excellent one (May 21) on the Supreme Court’s decision to transfer the Gyanvapi case to a district court in UP. The editorial expressed disappointment that the SC had failed to have “ended the Gyanvapi matter” when it could very well have done so. It also called out the court on its observation that the 1991 Act, “only bars change in religious character but no ascertainment of religious character” and iterated that the purpose of the Act was to “foreclose” controversies: “Allowing disputes to fester through ascertainment was clearly not what the Act intended”. 

Editorials tend to be seen as the pontifications of commentators living in ivory towers, but at a time when the dragon seed of communal hatred and religious claim-making are being sowed across the country, any words of wisdom and restraint that speak sense to the country in general and its institutions in particular are extremely welcome.

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A killing capturing the brutality of Israel’s occupation of Palestine

Shireen Abu Akleh will live on as a constant reminder of the barbarically militarised ways of the apartheid state of Israel (‘The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh is No Aberration’, May 16). As historian Rashid Khalidi points out, her fatal shooting is one more example of “essentially state-sanctioned murder”. This, he says, is what colonial armies do.

Mourners gather near the body of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed by Israeli army gunfire during an Israeli raid, according to the Qatar-based news channel, in Jenin in the Israeli-occupied West Bank May 11, 2022. Israeli military said Abu Akleh may have been shot by Palestinians as they clashed with its troops. Photo: Reuters/Mohamad Torokman

The assassination also reminded journalists across the world that they are constantly in the crosshairs of forces which see media reporting and documenting as hostile acts. How else can you explain the deliberate felling down of a woman reporter who was wearing her flak jacket with the word “PRESS” emblazoned across it?

How else can you explain the manner in which Israeli forces hounded her even after her death?  Not only did they storm a hospital in occupied East Jerusalem where the body of the dead woman was lying, they ripped the Palestinian flags off the hearse carrying her body and attacked her funeral procession, setting upon with batons the pall-bearers of her coffin until it slipped off their shoulders and toppled over.

Significant too was the manner in which many news outlets tried to tamp down the seriousness of these developments. The New York Times got called out by several careful readers on its coverage.  Suchitra Vijayan, a lawyer and author, put out a tweet that sharply critiqued NYT for its timorous, dangerously misleading headline: ‘Shireen Abu Akleh, Trailblazing Palestinian Journalist, Dies at 51’.

Despite the enormous international condemnation of its actions, the Israeli military demonstrated a savage impunity by stating that it will not investigate the Shireen Abu Akleh killing.  This has led journalist bodies and Palestinian activists to urge local/national journalist syndicates and federations to take concrete action, including:

  • Ending ties with complicit Israeli institutions.
  • Pledging to refuse junkets to Israel funded by the Israeli government, complicit Israeli institutions and Israel lobby groups.
  • Supporting journalists who refuse to cover assignments in Israel on ethical grounds.
  • Supporting the IFJ case before the ICC on Israel’s systematic targeting of Palestinian journalists.
  • Pledging to respect the ethical and professional journalistic guidelines developed by the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate and the Palestinian BDS National Committee. 
  • Pledging to centre Palestinian voices and eyewitnesses instead of centring Israeli government spokespersons.

(Source: https://bdsmovement.net/justiceforshireen)

In India, there were many Hindutva trolls who actually “celebrated” this murder. 

This only shows how those with fascistic propensities in this country are increasingly looking to Israel for inspiration and guidance. No surprises here…

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Readers write in…

More women judges, please!

Prasanna Kumar has an interesting take on justice delivery in India:

“Considering the decisions made by women judges, it is my view that 75 per cent of our courts need to comprise women judges.  Scientifically speaking, women have a higher emotional quotient than men. Take mothers, for instance, they are required to make wise judgments every day, and do so without fail. Take me, I have been regularly beaten on a countless occasions by my mother and are much the better for that!

“I write this in the context of a brilliant judgment delivered by a woman judge of the Madras High Court.”

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Why the silence?

Occasional Wire baiter, M.K. Shah, wants to know why it was silent about the Hyderabad honour killing in which a Dalit man was killed by the relatives of his Muslim wife:

Why are the champions of Dalits, who rush to report on cases like Rohith Vemula and Hathras, preferring to be quiet on the Hyderabad honour killing? They all seem to have gone on leave. They would have been an outcry if the assailants had been Hindu Brahmins or Rajputs.”

My response: Just a reminder that The Wire did carry reports on the incident including ‘Dalit Man Beaten to Death in Hyderabad Allegedly for Marrying ‘Upper’ Caste Muslim Woman’ (May 5).

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Colonial mindset in the Indian Railways

Given The Wire’s sympathetic coverage of Railway Union matters (‘Why the 1974 All-India Railway Strike Is Relevant Even Today’, May 8, 2021), we are in receipt of an interesting plea from railway workers who request to remain anonymous:

“Please save us, railway workers, from the organised modern-day slavery and psychological trauma that is our lot. The railway administration needs a complete overhaul to end departmental silos and the elite mentality of officers. Let us fight to liberate the Indian Railway administration from their colonial mindset. Small changes can make a huge difference.”

They also sent us a document titled, ‘British officers in Indian Railways’, written by a person who describes himself as a “labour class employee of the Indian Railways”, which was to be presented to the Ministry of Railways and the Railway Board and dedicated to his “beloved Indian Railway fellow colleagues”.

After stating that he has no personal grudge against any railway officer and totally respects the ethical code of conduct of the Indian railways, he goes on to say that not a single day has passed without him wondering why he had joined the Indian Railways. This was not the railway working culture he had imagined when he first joined. Today he feels stuck in a vicious cycle of slavery.

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Gyanvapi mosque

The Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), which terms itself an advocacy group dedicated to safeguarding India’s pluralist and tolerant ethos, sent in a statement on the Gyanvapi mosque. Excerpts: 

“On Monday, a lawyer commissioner Ajay Kumar Mishra, who was directed to survey the mosque — after a group of Hindu women filed a petition seeking permission to pray on the premises — submitted before the court that a Shiva Linga was found in the wazu khana (ablution tank) of the mosque.

“The lawyers representing the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee, which manages the Gyanvapi mosque, rejected the claim saying that the object is not a “shivling” but part of a fountain.

“In haste, the local court ordered the authorities to immediately seal a portion of the mosque (‘Gyanvapi Mosque: ‘Shivling Found During Survey’, Area Sealed on Court Orders’, May 16), literally giving legal cover to the Hindu supremacist drives of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and its militant affiliates…

“Apart from its explicit communal overtones, the latest court order completely violates the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, which prohibits conversion of places of worship from one religion to another, except for the Babri Masjid dispute…”

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Elon Musk, planets ahead

Lamchith M.C. has a point to make in response to last fortnight’s column (Backstory: The Elon Musk Milestone on the Internet’s Superprofit Highway’, May 7):

“Please do not put Elon Musk in the same category as Ambani and Adani. He has made more contributions to the world today than anyone who is currently alive.”

Write to ombudsperson@thewire.in