Batala tragedy

Owner of illegal cracker unit, lax officials at fault

IT was a disaster waiting to happen. The firecracker unit — which local residents claim was a factory but officials say was a godown — operating illegally from a congested residential area in Batala was a veritable tinderbox. And the inevitable occurred on Wednesday when a series of blasts on the premises claimed 23 lives. The ongoing magisterial probe should find out why the unit was not shut or relocated despite the complaints lodged with the district authorities by residents and the management of a nearby school. Also, it must be ascertained how the owner kept plying his trade even though his licence had expired a few years ago.

A blast had taken place in this unit in January 2017 as well; the owner was booked after a worker lost his life. It was the election season in Punjab and the ‘insignificant’ case did not get any attention. Eventually, the matter was given a quiet burial and business resumed as usual.

The Explosives Act, 1884; Explosives Rules, 2008; Factories Act, 1948 — there is no dearth of legislation on safety norms pertaining to industrial units where firecrackers are manufactured and stored. It’s the enforcement that leaves a lot to be desired, largely due to the laxity or complicity of officials. Double-digit casualties are almost an annual affair in India’s fireworks hub, Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu. Untrained workers, absence of fire extinguishers, no escape routes, non-existent monitoring — these factors together form a deadly cocktail. During the festival season, there is a clamour for using eco-friendly, low-decibel crackers or none at all; the conditions under which these are made or stored is rarely part of the discourse — until an avoidable tragedy happens. The Punjab Government should spare neither the defaulters nor the officials who look the other way. The investigators need to ensure that the Batala incident does not meet the fate of the 2012 industrial tragedy in Jalandhar that snuffed out the lives of 23 labourers. An industrialist and others were acquitted after a special investigation team failed to establish their role in the collapse of a factory building. Deterrence will remain a distant dream if justice keeps becoming the casualty.

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