Tempers ran high at the government hospital at Batala over the deadly blast at a firecracker factory, which operated illegally, according to what the police said on Thursday (September 5).
Twenty-three people were killed and several others injured in the Wednesday (September 4) afternoon explosion at the factory set amid homes and shops in Gurdaspur district’s Batala.
“The factory was working illegally. I didn’t come to know about it earlier. Otherwise it would have been closed down,” Batala Senior Superintendent of Police Opinderjit Singh told the media. “Now we are checking the licences of all factories in Batala city,” he said.
At the civil hospital, some slogan-shouting relatives demanded action against senior officials for failing to shut down the factory despite repeated complaints from the residents of Guru Ram Das Colony on Jalandhar Road.
“What inquiry will the government conduct now?” a protester said. “A case of murder should be registered against the top officials for allowing the factory to run illegally.”
The Punjab government has ordered a magisterial inquiry into the blast that brought down the factory. The factory had been split into four units by its owners. The explosion blew the roofs off a few adjacent buildings and damaged vehicles parked nearby.
Local residents said that the explosion was heard kilometres away. They said that a blast at the same factory in January 2017 killed a worker and injured three others. They claimed that several complaints were submitted to the administration in the past seeking the closure of the factory.
The victims in Wednesday’s explosion included factory workers, members of the owners families and some passersby, officials said.
On Thursday, the police said, apart from the 23 dead, there were 18 injured in the blast. Seven severely injured were referred to the Amritsar medical college.
Local residents said, after the original factory owner Satnam Singh’s death, it was split into four units run by his sons Jaspal Singh, Paramjit Singh, Harbhajan Singh and Ravil Singh. Satnam Singh had a permit to run the factory. This was not renewed after his death by the administration, police said.
The production units-cum-shops were in the front and the families lived at the back, according to Baljit Singh, who knows the owners. He said that the owners stocked raw material in large quantities ahead of festivals like Dussehra, Gurpurab and Diwali, and the firecrackers were delivered not only in Punjab but in Himachal Pradesh too.
After the 2017 blast, the owners had agreed to shift the factory elsewhere and only maintain their offices in the busy locality that also houses a gurdwara, a temple and a private school, local residents said. But just a few months later, firecrackers were being manufactured again at the same location, they said.
Batala Bar Association president Raghubir Singh Sandhu, who stays in the same locality, said that no action was taken on his complaints. “Along with other residents of locality, I requested the administration after the 2017 incident to shift this firecracker factory outside the city. But all in vain,” he said.
Gurdaspur Deputy Commissioner Vipul Ujwal said that 19 bodies have been identified so far. Five of the dead were from the families of the owners. They were identified as Surinder Singh, Paramjit Singh, Onkar Singh, Vikramjit Singh, and Rajinderpal Singh.
Eleven others worked at the factory. The police identified them as Shamlal, Mukha, Balkar Singh, Lakha Singh, Balkar, Tarlok Singh, Sonu, Manpreet Singh, Alia, Vinay and Lalli.
Three local residents – Bimala Rani, Ramandeep Kaur and Pahulpreet Singh also died in the blast. Punjab’s Rural Development and Panchayat Minister Tript Rajinder Singh Bajwa met the injured at a local hospital on Wednesday night.
The state government has announced an ex-gratia payment of ₹2 lakh each to the relatives of those killed and ₹50,000 for each of the seven severely injured. Congress Rajya Sabha MP Partap Singh Bajwa on Thursday urged the Punjab government to register cases against the officials responsible for the tragedy.
If the responsibility of any official is not fixed, these kind of incidents will continue to happen in the future as well, he said.