The nation was left shocked last Friday when a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) submitted its report to the Sindh High Court declaring the Karachi Baldia Town fire incident as a case of arson. The JIT comprising the ISI, Pakistan Rangers, IB, CID Karachi, CID Sindh, Special Branch and Sindh Police named the Muttahida Qaumi Movement to be the culprits who set the fire when they failed to collect extortion money from the owners of the factory.

The incident happened in 2012 on September 11. A garments factory in Baldia Town Karachi caught fire and nearly 300 labourers succumbed to the fire and smoke. According to media reports that appeared after the fire in 2012, the fire first broke out on the first floor of the building and rapidly covered that entire floor and the one beneath it. The Sindh Provincial Minister for Industries & Commerce, Rauf Siddiqi, senior member of MQM, resigned after the tragedy while his party announced three days of mourning in Karachi.

Going back to the reports from those days, many leaders, officials and media persons who had visited the burnt factory, had reported that it was due to the negligence of the factory owners who did not follow regulations under the Factories Act. There was a lack of security equipment and not enough safety measures for employees in case of emergencies.

On September 14 in 2012, the factory owners appeared before the media and defended themselves claiming that their factory had all the necessary certifications from relevant departments. They blamed the huge loss of life on fire brigade that came ninety minutes after the incident. They also said that the fire fighters did not use multiple nozzles to extinguish fire for lack of orders from authorities. To make matters worse, there was no water available with them, which they fetched from another location.

On the same day the government announced a judicial investigation of the tragedy under a retired judge. Meanwhile an investigation team from the FIA was established, that submitted its report within three months of the tragedy. Another investigation team was also established by the Sindh Police that submitted its report in early 2013. Yet another inquiry team was established under Justice Zahid Qurban Alvi, that too submitted its report in 2013.

Karamat Ali, head of Pakistan Institute of Labor Education and Research (PILER) that is in litigation against various departments of Sindh Govt for different cases pertaining to Baldia Town Factory Fire incidence, pointed out the common finding of all the three reports which was criminal negligence on the part of factory management. The report by FIA explicitly said that they examined the aspect of extortion and deliberate arson, but found no evidence to prove that.

Asad Jamal, a human rights campaigner and Advocate High Court, however is skeptical about the entire investigation that has come forward to date. He highlights the fact that the FIA comes under the purview of the federal government. When its report was released the federal government under the Pakistan Peoples Party was a coalition partner of the MQM. It would not have been very difficult to manipulate the FIA report for either the federal government or the provincial government.

The judicial inquiry team under Justice Alvi had clearly mentioned short-circuiting as the possible cause of fire in its report. The report although, cites many factors that contributed to the loss of life in the tragedy, including late arrival of fire tenders, lack of fire hydrants and traffic congestion that kept the fire brigade from reaching the venue in time. Among other things, the report strongly criticized factory owners and the government for failing to enforce the law. It also castigated the Forensic Department of the Police for failing to conduct a scientific investigation.

Here Asad Jamal raises another important point about successive governments succumbing to the pressure of industrialists and not ensuring that the laws are followed. The Sindh Govt had stopped inspection of factories and any such inspection was conditional upon approval from Sindh Industrial & Trading Estate (SITE). Such a ban was in force in Punjab as well. This is not to say that inspections automatically lead to better health and safety conditions for workers, clarifies Jamal, but that the whole machinery is in decay and the laws are obsolete.

After all these inquiry reports, this sudden development of JIT revelations comes as a curious surprise. Karamat Ali is of the view that not only the time of this revelation but also the process behind it and the content raises many questions. Before jumping to any conclusions, it is important that answers to these questions are sought and each and every step is carefully examined.

The recent JIT was established in June 2013 and did not have the Baldia Town Factory Fire case in its ToRs. It was rather, investigating target killings and the Karachi Operation. The report was submitted to the Sindh High Court when the latter had written to different law enforcement agencies to submit their investigation reports. The Pakistan Rangers that shares a peculiar history with MQM was sitting on the report for a year.

The culprit, allegedly a part of MQM, who has reportedly confessed to have thrown chemical in the factory for arson when he failed to collect extortion money, is no where on the scene. If indeed he is in custody, the Court may subpoena him for further examination.

If this prime witness of the conspiracy and perpetrator of the arson is not in custody, why is he not? Why was the report was not submitted to the authorities in time? If it was submitted, what action was taken? Was it a compromise between two political parties that have been in a love-hate relationship in Karachi since long? Were the Rangers part of that compromise? Why have the lives of 300 citizens become political bait? If the Sindh Govt didn’t have the required expertise or equipment to investigate, did it try to get the expertise from the government or abroad?

Why are factory inspections regularly banned and to what end? It would be useful if the recommendations made by the inquiry tribunals were implemented, especially regarding the inspection status in the province or in Karachi and the lack of forensic expertise or equipment. And before opposition parties make it an issue to further their political agendas, they must let the law takes its course and let the Court come up with a judgment.