The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Topsia fire trap in Howrah

Howrah, Feb. 5: Trapped inside their burning sweatshop, the seven young men had tried to break free through the wall. But the fire swallowed them — just as another midnight inferno had scorched nine young lives last November.

As if 33C Topsia, on Calcutta’s eastern fringes, wasn’t enough, it was the turn of 34/1 Bon Behari Bose Road in Howrah as an early-morning blaze swept through an embroidery unit stashed with nylon saris, but without any fire- fighting tools or emergency exit.

So when police and the fire brigade reached the 1500-sq-ft Mahalaxmi Embroidery in the now closed Howrah Flour Mill, all they found were charred bodies in a blackened room and half-burnt saris among the ashes of three embroidery machines.

It meant the lessons from Topsia, where nine workers in an illegal leather unit could not escape the blaze as they were locked in from outside, had been forgotten in the rush to squeeze money out of human lives.

The Telegraph had then carried a series of stories on the inhuman condition in these sweatshops. A few raids followed, but the units began operating again as authorities relaxed their vigil.

“We have detained Amit Chowdhury and Bikash Damani, the two partners of the embroidery unit. We are verifying documents to know about the legal status of the unit and what caused the fire,” said Howrah police superintendent Neeraj Kumar Singh.

The officer said all seven bodies were found near the back wall of the factory under the AC machine. “That suggests they tried to escape by pulling down the AC machine.”

Harasit Sarkar, who conducted the post-mortem, said some “highly inflammable articles” could have been inside the unit. “Only garments cannot cause such an inferno all of a sudden.”

Among the seven, all between 20 and 25, five have been identified.

“My brother was made to slog hard for nominal wages. He would work more than 12 hours a day. He was also forced to do night shifts 15 days every month,” sobbed Anamika Das, the elder sister of Manojit, one of the victims.

Raju Das, an employee working at an adjacent building when the fire erupted, recounted the horror. “I had stepped out for some fresh air and saw the unit in flames. The heat was so intense we couldn’t go anywhere near.”

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