ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Fighting Fires: Migrant Workers in Mumbai

Migrant workers in one of Mumbai’s most industrially dense areas with 3,500 small manufacturing and recycling units face a number of hazards, with fires being among the common ones. This article looks closely at the causes and aftermaths of these fires and notes how the workers cope with them even as their skills and knowledge prevent even bigger accidents.

Fires are not new to Mumbai. News reports suggest that 97 serious fire accidents were reported in Mumbai in 2019 and 84 in 2018 (Panigrahi 2020). In 2018, the Mumbai Fire Brigade received a total of 4,899 calls. Of these, 1,020 were of fires affecting residential buildings including high-rises, while commercial establishments had 386 incidents and slums had 544 (Upadhyay 2019). Despite this general increase in fire incidents and a consensus around widespread flouting of fire norms across the city, this article shows how fires affecting poorer neighbourhoods in the city continue to be viewed with suspicions of arson, rather than as result of the sheer lack of urban planning, migrant housing, and safe working conditions in these neighbourhoods. Migrant workers, employed in small industrial units in the city, are forced to take on the responsibility of keeping themselves safe from not only regular incidents of fire, but also other occupational risks that unsafe working and living conditions expose them to.

The article is based on an ongoing qualitative research project on risk and safety, being undertaken by the Aajeevika Bureau in Kurla (L-ward in Central Mumbai). The ward is among those with the lowest human development indicators in the city with low levels of sanitation, health and education (Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai 2010). The ward is also one of the densest given its industrial cluster of over 3,500 small manufacturing and recycling units. This includes not only metal works, but also waste sorting, garment manufacturing and packaging. The small-scale units are particularly attractive to migrant workers, as they double up as housing in the city. Workers come primarily from Uttar Pradesh, and the large majority of the working population of L-ward is Muslim. The units have an average of seven to eight workers who live and work in cramped spaces with no fire exits and surrounded by hazardous chemicals and machines. At least two big fires in the neighbourhood over the last four years, leading to the deaths of 12 and two workers respectively, have brought to light the high-risk environment that prevails at the heart of Mumbai (India Today 2017, 2019).

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Updated On : 8th Apr, 2020

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