The death of one among seven persons, mostly daily wagers in a hooch tragedy on January 21, exposed the tragedy of illegal liquor factories functioning unnoticed. Barely a month later, a factory fire on Tuesday once again brought to the fore unauthorised manufacturing of firecrackers in Una district which is infamous for illegal mining, timber smuggling and liquor mafia.
It’s the election season in Himachal Pradesh and the ruling BJP will have to do a lot of explaining as to how illegal factories, the latest one under cloud handling explosives, functioned in the prime industrial belt of the state, bordering Punjab.
Six women – all migrant labourers from Uttar Pradesh were burnt alive and 14 others, 11 of them struggling with their lives at PGI Chandigarh, sustained burns after a devastating fire broke at the unit, run at industrial area of Bathu, Tahliwal in Una district.
Speaking to Outlook, Deputy Commissioner (Una) Raghav Sharma said there is no official record about this factory having obtained mandatory clearances including permissions under the Explosives Substances Act.
"The unit had not obtained electricity supply and water connection. Everything looks fishy as per information gathered from the General Manager, District Industries Centre. I have asked for immediate physical verification of all the industries located in Una industrial zone “ said Sharma, who did not rule out more factories and industrial units operating without necessary clearances.
Locals informed the administration that the entire raw material used to be brought during the night but manufacturing was done in the day. The plot, where the controversial factory is located, was sanctioned for different purposes to other owners, whose electricity supply was disconnected in 2021 when promoters had shut down their operations. How an illegal firecrackers factory came into being at the same site raises serious questions. Can't be without administrative or political patronage, alleges Rakesh Singh, a CPM MLA.
The incident has raised alarm in the state’s industries department as Leader of Opposition Mukesh Agnihotri, who is also senior MLA from the area, draws a parallel between Delhi’s “Uphaar Cinema" fire of 1997 asking for an independent probe.
“I want to know under whose directions this illegal factory was operating for the past one year. It’s unbelievable that they did not have basic clearances /licences. How they brought explosive material, stored it and thus put the lives of poor migrant labourers, especially women, at grave risk. There is definitely a political shelter and serious administrative lapse. I don't rule out more such factories in Una and elsewhere," he fears.
Agnihotri, who himself was the industries minister in the earlier Congress government, claims that Una is the worst example where the mining mafia is ruling the roost, liquor mafia is running inter-state rackets and timer mafia is looting the state’s green belt.
Finding itself at the receiving end, Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur has set up a Special Investigation Team (SIT) under Sumedha Dwivedi, a DIG rank IPS officer and also rushed industries minister Bikram Singh to the spot.
"There will be an exemplary action against owners and also officials if any found, involved by the inquiry. A case has also been registered by the police at Haroli Police station," Thakur said at the state assembly.
Surprisingly, the state government has a high-level 'single window' empowered committee under the chief minister that grants principle approvals to every single industrial unit/factory. The preliminary inquiries done by the Deputy Commissioner of Una, have so far, not found credible records about this illegal firecrackers' factory, where 35 to 40 employees were engaged.
There were really heart rendering scenes at the ill-fated site where families were in shock, unable to recognise their kind, reduced to skeletons and pieces of flesh. Few were unable to step in near the devastated site.
Anwar Hussain, who had lost his wife, Akhtari (45) and daughter Aanwata (19), could recognise the body from earrings and bangles. His wife had started the factory job five months back and his daughter joined only two months back.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced an ex-gratia relief of Rs 2 lakh each for next of the kins of the deceased women labourers and Rs 50,000 for those injured.
Besides the state's biggest industrial belt of Baddi-Barotiwala -Nalagarh, now Asia's largest pharmaceutical hub, Una district ranks number two in industries followed by Sirmaur and Kangra districts.
The government, for the past year, has been trying hard to get Rs1,000 cr worth 'Bulk drug park' under the central government scheme for manufacturing active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) and intermediates in three Indian states aimed to reduce dependency on China. The site proposed is also located in the Una district.
Only a month back, the death of seven persons in a hooch tragedy, the first of its kind in the state, led the police to find two illegal distilleries and a massive smuggling racket of illicit liquor operating in the state. Nearly two dozen persons have been arrested by police SIT.
Meanwhile, State Industries Minister Bikram Singh said that in the course of the inspection, one more illegal factory of this nature has been detected next to the one gutted in the fire. This has, in fact, further created doubts about the connivance of the officials who are under a cloud for their role along with the tragedy.