Why labourers at Kalbadevi's jewellery workshops are sitting ducks in a fire

mid-day visits the city’s jewellery hub at Zaveri Bazaar and Kalbadevi, where goldsmiths are locked inside cramped jewellery workshops with inflammable substances and no way to escape in case of a fire

One of the things that aggravated Saturday’s blaze was the chemical stored in the gold workshop on the fourth floor of the Gokul Niwas buiding in Kalbadevi — the liquid not only increased the intensity of the flames, but also gave severe chemical burns to one of the firemen injured in the rescue operation. In fact, Kalbadevi and the nearby Zaveri Bazaar are jam-packed with several such jewellery workshops that are potential fire hazards.

jewellery hub
Far from golden: For up to 18 hours a day, the labourers are locked inside cramped rooms with no way to escape, as they use kerosene and blowtorches to mould gold and silver jewellery

Most of these units don’t have licences and operate on the sly, using kerosene stoves and blowtorches to make jewellery. Not only do these tools pose a major fire risk, in most of the units, the workers are locked inside cramped single rooms with the doors and windows barred and locked — a precaution against theft. However, this means the goldsmiths are just fish in a barrel when it comes to a fire — with the premises locked up, neither will they be able to escape, now will a fire brigade be able to help them.

Zaveri Bazaar has traditionally been Mumbai’s biggest jewellery market, where the entire city throngs to buy gold and silver ornaments. The adjacent Kalbadevi also has similar shops. Although these shops belong to affluent Gujaratis and Marwaris, most of their manufacturing units are operated by labourers, many of whom were Bangladeshi migrants, working almost 18 hours a day for anywhere between Rs ,000 to Rs 7,000.

mid-day visited several such manufacturing units located on the top floors of dingy, old buildings in Kalbadevi. These buildings are decades old and have loose electrical wires hanging inside, while the gold workshops are poorly lit and cramped. The workshops reeked of kerosene, and workers were frequently seen using precision torches fuelled by kerosene to mould the gold. When asked whether any other chemicals were used in the process, however, the workers answered in the negative. All it could take to turn the wooden building into a tinderbox is a single misplaced spark. Despite this, the premises had no fire extinguishers or fire alarm.

The process

The workers first flatten gold biscuits using a machine and then solder it using blowtorches fuelled by mini gas cylinders. Fine wires are made from the gold and shaped into a mass using black wax. The 22-carat gold is then designed, using minute tools, into ornaments. Once ready, the jewellery is then sent to retail shops for sale.

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