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Updated: April 19, 2013 09:48 IST

Factory owner’s apathy leaves small unit worker high and dry

Jiby Kattakayam
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Shabnam with burn wounds in Delhi on Thursday.
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Shabnam with burn wounds in Delhi on Thursday.

In Mundka, at a small industrial unit making ceiling fan blades, Shabnam was nearly seven hours through her 12-hour shift, when fate intervened. She struck a match and lighted a gas-powered furnace. A terrible explosion ensued. The protective iron gates enclosing the furnace were thrown open by the force of the blast and the flames leapt at the 16-year-old girl. The entire left side of her body -- face, neck, torso, hand and leg -- was burnt.

She was not taken to a government hospital. The factory owner allegedly warned that he would not foot her medical bills if she was taken without his permission. Instead, he arranged for a local doctor to make house visits. Even five days later, on March 19, the pain was unbearable and the swelling was refusing to subside. Shabnam’s mother, Reshma, who also worked at the factory, was by now at her wits’ end. Fearing that her daughter would die, she spoke up: she demanded immediate hospitalisation and compensation.

Reshma also got a photo studio nearby to take a photograph of the girl. According to the studio owner, “The girl was in a lot of pain. She was crying aloud. I asked them to rush her to a hospital.” However, he said he did not know how she got burnt.

The same day, the factory owner came prepared with a Rs.50 e-stamp paper and a pre-typed agreement, which Reshma said she signed without bothering to read. “I was desperate for any kind of medical attention. They were offering Rs.60,000 and I wanted to save my daughter’s life.”

The agreement claims that Shabnam was working at the owner’s house in Uttam Nagar and was “doing some work on the gas when some parts of her body caught fire.” The agreement records her age as 19 and states that the owner has borne all the expenses of the treatment till date; that she is out of danger; and that all further medical expenses would be borne by the mother. The agreement states that it was being made to prevent Reshma from issuing “threats/blackmail” in the future.

Shabnam was admitted to a private hospital in Nangloi on March 19 and was discharged on March 25. Almost the entire compensation went into paying her treatment bill of Rs.57,500.

But Shabnam is far from healed. Her limbs hurt and the scars pain her young mind. She looks longingly at a family album filled with her earlier pictures.

On April 2, another shock jolted Reshma. The contractor who had hired her terminated her job at the factory. She has been asked to vacate the single-room labour quarter in which they reside. The contract system of labour has hurt them. “None of our fellow workers helped us in our difficult times. Instead they harass me and my girls in several ways,” Reshma alleged.

Like most industrial workers in small-scale production units, Reshma and Shabnam do not have ESI cards that would have taken care of their medical expenses, or any sort of documentation showing they are employed in the unit. Both allege they are paid only Rs.3,500 per month despite working overtime on 12-hour shifts. Without ration cards, the mother–daughter duo say that they spent nearly Rs.4,500 every month on foodgrains, LPG cylinders and other household needs.

For a 30-year-old, Reshma has had a tough life. Married at 14, she is the mother of five children: four girls and one boy. Her husband left her seven years ago; he has not been seen or heard from since then. She left her native Shahjahanpur district in Uttar Pradesh two years ago, and moved to Delhi with three of her girls. The other two children are with their grandmother back home. None of them have been to school. Shabnam started working in the factory on turning 14 to help her mother meet household expenses.

What worries Reshma most is how she can marry off Shabnam with the scars left by the burns.

“Even a jhuggiwala wants a motorbike and Rs.50,000 as dowry. She was such a pretty girl. Now even the most unsuitable groom will demand Rs.2 lakh. Where will I get the money now?” Reshma asks.

The factory owner, Dev Kumar Mishra, disputes the accusations made against him. He said that only the mother was employed at his factory and that Shabnam was working at his house.

On why he did not immediately hospitalise a person with 50 per cent burn wounds, he said the burns did not seem to be severe then. He claimed that the girl’s burn wounds have healed and she is okay now. Regarding the termination of Reshma from the job, Mr. Mishra said his factory was being shifted to Bawana and the contractor who hired Reshma must have terminated her services. He promised to look into the matter.

Shabnam says: “I have never been to Uttam Nagar, where he resides. So how can he say I was working at his house?” On Monday, Reshma knocked the doors of the Deputy Labour Commissioner’s office in Ashok Vihar to no avail. “Will some government agency help my daughter?” a mother is asking.

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