Batala (GURDASPUR) — “We were manufacturing crackers for generations. People in the area knew us as ‘the aatisbaaz’ (cracker manufacturers). We never thought that this sort of tragedy would wipe out our entire generation on a single day,” said an inconsolable 14-year-old Harmanjeet Kaur.
Lying in the emergency ward of civil hospital at Batala on Thursday, Harmanjeet seemed at a loss. Her father, Jaspal Singh, had died six months ago and her only brother Onkardeep Singh, along with six of his cousins, died on Wednesday in an explosion at an unregistered firecracker factory in Punjab’s Batala.
While her mother went to cremate her family members at a nearby cremation ground, Harmanjeet was sitting alone on the hospital bed with multiple injuries on her hands and legs. With folded hands, she was pleading with visitors to the ward to take her to cremation ground to see her brother for the last time.
“We grew up rolling explosives for the crackers meant for Diwali and Gurpurab celebrations. It was child’s play for us. Our great grandfathers used to do this work. People from Batala and nearby Gurudwaras used to buy crackers from us for Diwali and Gurpurab celebrations,” Harmanjeet told HuffPost India.
Four people who came from the historic Gurudwara Kandh Sahib to buy crackers to celebrate Guru Nanak’s wedding anniversary also died in the explosion.
Harmanjeet said that on Wednesday, she and her mother and sister were in their house on the first floor of the building. Her brother Onkar had gone down to the factory to deliver an order when the blast took place.
“I don’t know what we will do when the majority of the men in our family have died and we know nothing except this deadly business,” said Harmanjeet as she boarded a police vehicle to bid a final goodbye to her brother.
FIR against the factory owner’s dead son
The Batala police have registered a case against the sons of the factory owner Jaspal Singh on the charges of culpable homicide without naming anyone.
Onkardeep Singh, the only son of the factory owner, died in the blast.
The cases were registered under section 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), Section 427 (mischief causing damage to amount of Rs 50) and Sections 3, 4 and 5 of the Explosive Substances Act on a complaint filed by Civil Lines station house officer (SHO) Mukhtiar Singh.
Gurdaspur Deputy Commissioner Vipul Ujjwal told HuffPost India that he has asked officials to scrutinise the files in their respective offices to trace the complaints filed by area residents against the illegal factory owners.
“While area residents have claimed that numerous complaints were made with the district officials, we have not able to trace anyone. A magisterial probe is on into the case and guilty officials will also be taken to task,” said Ujjwal.
When HuffPost India visited the site, residents claimed that the illegal business had been going on for years with the knowledge of police and district administration officials.
“Many days before Dussehra and Diwali, police vehicles used to make a beeline in front of our houses to collect crackers from the factory. We even saw them keeping liquor boxes along with crackers in the police vehicles belonging to senior officials,” alleged a neighbour who didn’t want to be named.
Navdeep Singh, another neighbour, told HuffPost India that he had tried multiple times to make videos of workers making crackers but was thwarted by the factory owners.
No lessons learnt
According to Navdeep Singh, whose house had shared a wall with the blast site, a similar blast of low intensity had taken place in 2017 as well.
“The factory owner assured us that he had stopped manufacturing crackers at the site and even moved his family two months ago on the top floor to prove his claim. But recently we came to know that he never left the manufacturing business and instead had made a small door at the back to transport the raw material and deliver the consignments,” said Singh.
No progress with case
While more than 48 hours have passed since the blast, the police is yet to find a way to deal with the case. Most of the men from the factory owner’s family have died in the blast. The surviving family now constitutes mostly of women and children.
“The owner had the licence till 2017, which was not renewed since then. Also, it seemed that the owners had given wrong address and not of the place where the explosion took place. In this case, the accident site do not exist in our records,” Ujjwal told HuffPost India.
On Thursday, Gurdaspur MP Sunny Deol came to Batala to meet the victims. He arrived a day late after being trolled for allegedly being busy promoting his son’s debut movie instead of being in his constituency.
Meanwhile, the police has handed over the bodies to the victims’ families after identification. While two remain unidentified, the administration has lost track of one body.
The body of 46-year-old Satnam Singh, a factory worker who died in the blast, has gone missing from Civil Hospital at Batala on Thursday, his family alleged.
While a photo of Singh’s dead body was published on the front page of a local daily, officials are clueless about what has happened to the body.