The fire at the Onida electronics factory in Haridwar in 2012 killed 12 workers. Documentary evidences establish that the management of the factory flouted safety requirements to boost production at the factory. The company did not follow any safety precautions, rules and laws; it did not even pay heed to the directions given to it by various departments of the state government. And yet the state government and senior officials have conspired to protect the accused.

Despite launching a major operation to control the inferno at the Onida factoryFebruary 8, 2012, the fire-fighting team of Haridwar districttook two days to bring the situation under control. The then Chief Minister B.C. Khanduriand high ranking officials of the police and various departments blamed the management of the company for the fire and had promised action against those responsible. A case was filed and the investigation clearly indicated that the culprits would be nabbed soon.

But it was not to be.

The First Information Report (FIR)

GL Mirchandani, Chairman, MIRC Electronics

GL Mirchandani, Chairman, MIRC Electronics (Onida)

After becoming a separate state in 2000, Uttarakhand saw rapid industrialisation. During this process, the MIRC Electronics Phase-II factory owned by the Onida group was set up in Mandawli villageon the Roorkee-Delhi road, 12 km from Roorkee under the Manglor police station’s jurisdiction. The factory produced washing machines and other electronic goods. On February 8, 2012, at around 5 p.m., a major fire broke out at the factory, killing 12 workers.

The next day, Mehak Singh, a resident of the nearby NarsanKhurd village, filed a complaint with the Manglor police in which he said that the unsafe practices were routinely brought to the notice of the officials at the factory but no action was taken. Singh and his brother Krishnapal worked at the factory. He said in his complaint that flammable material like thermocol, plastic goods and waste plastic were left lying around in the factory. Since some welding work was underway at the factory, Singh, Krishnapal and some other workers asked general manager SudhirMahendrato have the flammable material removed from the premises. Mahendra paid no need, and said that the welding mechanics had been set from Mumbai by G.L.Mirchandani, the owner of the Onida group, and he would work only as per his directions.

The factory after the fire

The factory after the fire

On the fateful day, Singh and Krishnapal had finished their shift but had stayed back to collect their salaries. Welding work was being done at the second floor of the factory, when sparks from the welding machine ignited plastic and thermocol. Krishnapal and 11 others were trapped in the fire and died, while others managed to escape.

In his complaint, Singh said that the fire-fighting equipment at the factory was defunct and had not been replaced by factory officials despite repeated requests from the workers. He said that due to the wanton negligence of SudhirMahendra and MIRC Electronics owner and Onida groups’ chairman G.L.Mirchandani, his brother and 11 others died in the fire. In the complaint, Singh sought the prosecution of the company officials. The Manglor police registered a case of culpable homicide not amounting to murder under Section 304 of the Indian Penal Code(IPC) against Mahendra and Mirchandani.

THE PROBE

Station House Officer (SHO) Mahendra Singh Negi of the Manglor police station began his investigations into the matter soon after the accident. When he was transferred, Inspector PankajGairola took over the probe for a while before the then Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) of Haridwar ordered Negi, who was by then posted at the Ranipur police station, to take over the probe again.

Policemen carrying bodies out of the factory

Policemen carrying bodies out of the factory

Negi and Gairola had recorded the statements of various eyewitnesses as per the provisions of Section 161 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) and had collected documentary and circumstantial evidence. Negi also based his investigations on the statements and letters of the fire brigade officials, Chief Fire Officer of the State Industrial Development Authority (SIDA) and the deputy electrical inspector of the state government.

On March 12, 2013, the Chief Fire Officer of Haridwar submitted his report to the additional district magistrate of Haridwar in which he had said the factory officials had been directed to get sprinkler systems, manual fire alarms and 100 mm risers and landing valves installed on the first floor of the factory but they had not done so. The No Objection Certificate (NOC) issued to the factory was for 2010-11 and was invalid; the company should have got a new NOC issued after making the recommended arrangements at the factory. The report also said that the factory officials also did not get the fire control systems replaced and inspected by officials.

The then Chief Fire Officer of Haridwar P.C. Shah had led the team that worked at the Onida factory to douse the fire and had used all the fire-fighting vehicles available at all the fire stations in the district. In his investigation report submitted before the District Magistrate (DM) on March 2, 2012, he said that the factory management chose to flout all the safety rules and was only trying to increase the production, because of which 12 people lost their lives and property worth Rs. 15 crore was destroyed.

Negi also included a letter written by Architect and Building Planner of SIDA, Y.S.Pundir, on September 7, 2009, as evidence in the case. Close to three years before the accident occurred, Pundir had directed the factory management to work on 19 different aspects that required work at the factory before getting the Building Occupancy Certificate for the factory premises. But the management never made the changes and did not have the certificate, even though a reminder had been sent to the factory barely five days before the accident. In his statement to police architect Abhinav Kumar Rawat, SIDA had stated that as per the Central Industrial Development Regulation Act 2005, production at a factory cannot begin before obtaining the clearance certificate, which clearly means that the factory was working in an illegal manner.