Neha Chandel, 19, burst into tears as she asked government officials how she will take care of her two sisters and a brother, all minors, after their parents’ death. Ms. Chandel, along with about a hundred angry locals, sat on a dharna on Wednesday, minutes after Chief Minister Mohan Yadav’s visit to the site of the firecracker blasts in Harda, Madhya Pradesh. The accident on February 6 morning had killed 12, and injured 200, with doubts being cast on the ‘official’ numbers. Their home, a stone’s throw away from the factory, crumbled under the impact of the explosion, and the children have been temporarily housed at a makeshift relief camp.
Now, Bairagarh village looks like a war-torn area. Local residents said the blasts that began around 11 a.m. felt like a “strong earthquake”. Jagged bits of concrete, with dangerous iron rods protruding, lie up to 300 metres around the site while debris is scattered up to a kilometre around. Some homes in the vicinity are gutted and some have cracks in walls. According to villagers, the blasts continued for about an hour.
“My father and I were coming home from my coaching class when we heard the blast. My mother, one sister, and my grandfather were home, so he asked me to get to safety, while he ran to the house,” Ms. Chandel recalled. Her grandfather had been paralysed for five years, and her parents went back to rescue him. She saw the rocks hit them, but found out they had died only in the evening. “We found our grandfather lying on the road, but he was safe,” said Ms. Chandel who is in the final year of a B.Com. degree.
A large population, including women and teenagers, from Bairagarh and nearby villages like Rehta Khurd and Harda town worked at the factory. They were hired for daily wages of ₹300. Around Diwali, when it’s firecracker season, they earned ₹400 a day. Many were also hired on contract. Collecting and storing 1,000 pieces of sutli bombs earned them ₹200. Locals claimed that at least 500-700 workers worked in the factory every day. Many had come from the tribal-dominated districts of Khargone and Betul, and even from States like Bihar.
Sevanti Gond, from Betul’s Damjipura, had come to Harda about three months ago with her husband and three children to work at the factory. More than 15 people from her village had come with her, she said. She, along with her two daughters, installed batti (the fuse tail lit to burst a cracker) in sutli bombs and was on the second floor of the factory when the first blast took place. “The first one was a minor explosion, but our manager asked all of us to leave immediately,” she said. There were about 60 workers in the hall she was in, she added. “We began to run down the stairs as fast we could and exited the factory premises to get to safety,” she said. It was the second blast that shook the ground, according to locals.
At the district hospital in Harda town, Shahrukh Khan, 29, has just received treatment for leg injuries from running through thorny bushes and falling. Mr. Khan, who filled explosive powder that would later be made into bombs, said, “I had just returned to my hall after taking a break when I heard the first blast. There was so much smoke that we could not see anything. We knew something was wrong, so we just ran.”
State Congress president Jitu Patwari alleged that the ruling BJP government was “hiding the actual death toll” and termed the accident a “government-created crime”. Kedar Sirohi, a Congress leader and a resident of Harda, said there are tin shanties made for workers from outside the area. They used to live there with their families. “Where are all of them?” he said.
A majority of the staff that mixed the chemicals to make the explosive powder, locals said, were tribals from nearby districts. They were called mama, as per the tribal tradition of addressing an elderly male. Mr. Khan said, “One mama, I know, told me that two of his fellow staff members had died in the blast, but their names have not been recorded.”
Rohit Sissoniya, CEO, Jila Panchayat, Harda, who was given the charge of Collector after Rishi Garg was transferred on February 7, refuted the allegations. “Many officials and I were present at the accident site throughout the operation that was undertaken by teams of NDRF [National Disaster Response Force] and SDRF [State Disaster Response Force]. We would have definitely found some human remains if there were any,” said Mr. Sissoniya. On Thursday, Aditya Singh, an IAS officer of 2014 batch currently serving as the Deputy Secretary in the Science and Technology Department, was made the Collector. Abhinav Chokse, an IPS officer of 2018 batch cadre, will be the new Superintendent of Police of Harda, as per government orders.
The police arrested Rajesh Agrawal, Somesh Agrawal (both brothers and owners), and Rafiq (a supervisor at the factory) on February 6 night. While Mr. Somesh and Mr. Rafiq have been given a 14-day police remand, Mr. Rajesh has been sent to jail directly due to a kidney condition. The State government has formed a three-member committee to probe the incident and the police are also conducting its investigation. An official said that the Agrawal brothers have 12 licences for manufacturing, storing, and selling firecrackers under the names of various family members. While officials said that they were yet to make an estimate of how much explosive was stored at the Bairagarh factory, they were certain that it way exceeded the permitted limits. The district administration sealed all 12 factories of the Agrawal family in the early hours of February 8, in an action against the various violations.
Licences are issued by the district administration, the State government and the Central government depending on their permitted capacity. While an LE-1 licence issued at the district level permits the capacity of 15 kg of explosives to be stored or manufactured, the LE-5 permit from the Centre allows a manufacturing capacity of 300 kg, he explains. “The two LE-1 licences they have are currently suspended for over a month,” an official said, adding that they have two valid licences of LE-5 level.
In 2015, two workers had died in a blast at the same factory in Bairagarh. Mr. Rajesh Agrawal was sentenced to 10 years in 2021, but was released on bail from the Madhya Pradesh High Court.
About 2 km from the Bairagarh factory lies another factory in Rehta Khurd village, owned by the two brothers. It was immediately abandoned by after the blasts. Thousands of sutli bombs are lying to dry in the sun, many tin-sheds are locked, but those that are open have large amounts of explosive powder and other cracker-making materials left in the open, a significant amount lying near the shanties of workers where kuchha stoves are used to cook food. The villagers of Rehta Khurd said they have been against factories being so close to residential areas, but the administration didn’t listen to them.
A woman from Bairagarh village who lost her husband in the 2015 incident said she fought the case for more than two years, but agreed to a settlement. “I had to feed my children, so, I took the money they offered,” she said. She went back to work at the same factory, as she could not find any other employment. On February 6, she was inside the factory, and said it was just god and good luck that saved her.