Ambulances are seen as police and fire fighters respond to a deadly fire that swept through a factory where labourers were sleeping, in New Delhi, India December 8, 2019, in this still image taken from video (ANI/via REUTERS TV).

POLICE in New Delhi have arrested the owner and manager of a factory where 43 people died in the Indian capital’s deadliest fire in 20 years, a spokesman said on Monday (9).

The blaze started early on Sunday (8) morning when more than a hundred workers were sleeping in the four-storey building located in a residential part of Delhi.

The factory, which made school bags, toys and stationery goods, was packed with combustible materials like paper, plastic and cardboard, causing it to burn for hours before being brought under control.

“We have arrested the owner and a manager of the factory where the fire broke out, and initiated an investigation which is going to be completed soon,” Delhi police spokesman Mandeep Singh Randhawa said.

Most workers employed at the unit live in the factory itself, cooking meals there. The Indian Express quoted one of the victims who had telephoned a neighbour in his hometown in central India saying he was trapped and going to die soon and that he should take care of his family.

Fire engines had struggled to access the congested lane where the building was located, witnesses said.

About five people died due to burn injuries and the rest because of asphyxiation, said local resident Arjun Kumar.

“After unloading piles of raw materials from a truck that arrived late at night, most labourers had gone to bed barely a couple of hours before the fire broke out at about 4 am. They couldn’t leave the building because of the lock which they couldn’t open,” said Kumar.

Frequent raids by civic authorities to enforce building codes, fire safety measures and evacuation procedures have failed to curb violations in the rapidly expanding city of about 20 million people.

Poor implementation of rules and lax regulations have repeatedly resulted in large fires in the sprawling city, and outside the main government district of New Delhi many tiny industrial units are situated very close to residential blocks.

Most of these units do not hire regular employees and rely on day workers who come to Delhi from some of the most underdeveloped and poverty-stricken states of India to eke out a living and send money home to support their families.

As most poor, underpaid workers cannot afford to rent houses, they often live in tiny, cramped rooms of their factories, making them vulnerable to industrial accidents.

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced compensation of Rs 1 million for the families of those killed.

Most workers complained of government apathy.

“Politicians came to the site, made big announcements and left the scene, but no one tried to help the victims and their families who’re facing difficulties in identifying and claiming the bodies of the workers who perished in the fire,” said factory worker Rehan.

More fire engines were sent to the factory on Monday morning to douse a small fire caused by burning waste.