MEDIA DISTORTS REPORT ON DELHI-MUNDKA FIRE By Pamela Philipose

MEDIA: Pamela Philipose is a senior fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research and a columnist. In this article she highlights the fatal flaws in media reportage citing the death of the labour beat in journalism.

The media coverage of the Delhi-Mundka blaze in the four-story building, which has many industrial units, exposes the plight of migrants who are forced to work in unsafe conditions for long periods of time.

By Pamela Philipose

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. 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.
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).

NO OBJECTION
We learnt how this particular building did not have a ‘No 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.
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.
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 be 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.”
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.

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.
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.
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.
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.
in the state legislature to confirm the status of official language as Konkani. But the Marathi lobby was so strong that they insisted that only Konkani in the Devanagari script would get the status of the official language. Much to the disappointment of the miniority community which had hoped that Konkani in the Roman script would also get recognition as the official language. Worse still, the official language which was passed on the 4 th February 1987, virtually conferred equal language status to Marathi. The bill stipulated that while Konkani would be the official language, Marathi may be used for any or all official purposes.
To secure statehood it was necessary for the central government to amend the 8th schedule to include Konkani in the list of official languages. It was only as late as May 23 1987 that Parliament enacted the 56th amendment whereby Goa was conferred statehood. The story goes that the late Shantaram Naik who was a member of the Lok Sabha from North Goa at that time kept persisting with Rajiv Gandhi that statehood should be conferred on Goa now that it had an official language. Apparently Rajiv Gandhi told Shantaram Naik to raise the issue during zero hour to remind him to move the bill for conferring statehood on Goa. So the late Shantaram Naik is often referred to as the hero of the zero hour. For the benefit of those not familiar with parliamentary procedures, zero hour is the time allotted after question hour in parliament and the legislative assembly during which members could raise any issue of public importance. Rajiv Gandhi issued the notification conferring the status of statehood on Goa on May 30 1987.
The BJP had no role to play in Goa acquiring statehood. Indeed the BJP was not in the picture even in the opinion poll or the agitation to make Konkani the official language. Indeed in the 80s when all the action leading to Goa acquiring statehood finally happened, the BJP did not have any significant presence in parliament or for that matter the Goa state legislative assembly. So it is absurd that the BJP should seek to take the credit for Goa being conferred the status of statehood. In its typical fashion of distorting history, the BJP has decided to invite the President of India Ram Nath Kovind to participate in the celebration of statehood day on 30 May 2022. To create the impression that it was the BJP which was responsible for securing statehood for Goa.
We hope that the Congress which disappointed its supporters by failing to secure a majority in the 2017 election will not permit the BJP to hijack the credit for Goa achieving statehood. We urge the new president of the Goa Pradesh Congress committee, Ajit Patekar and the leader of the Congress legislative party, Michael Lobo to widely publicise the fact that statehood was a gift from Rajiv Gandhi and that the BJP had nothing to do with it. We also hope that the Congress will organize functions in all parts of Goa to commemorate May 30 statehood day.

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