Buying time? West Bengal government sets up panel as explosions in illegal firecracker factories kill 16

Three back-to-back explosions; Green activists say priority should be to close illegal units

By Jayanta Basu
Published: Thursday 25 May 2023
The West Bengal government has decided to set up firework manufacturing clusters across the state to stop illegal units. Photo: iStock
The West Bengal government has decided to set up firework manufacturing clusters across the state to stop illegal units. Photo: iStock The West Bengal government has decided to set up firework manufacturing clusters across the state to stop illegal units. Photo: iStock

West Bengal was once known as a model state for noise pollution control, including fireworks. But now it has been rattled by a series of explosions in three illegal firework units, with at least 16 people, including women and minors, dead within a week.

The first blast happened on May 16, 2023 at Egra in Purba Medinipur district in south Bengal. The next one was on May 21 in Budge Budge at the southern fringe of Kolkata and the third one on May 23 in Malda in north Bengal. 

The development quickly spun into a political quagmire and the state government has decided to set up firework manufacturing clusters across the state to stop thousands of illegal units that function like cottage industries and defy all norms. 

Environmentalists alleged the latest decision to set up a committee is a ploy to buy time and thousands of such illegal units have been functioning for long. The units violate several norms and judicial verdicts with the tactic support of political parties and administration.

The incidents resulted from the “absolute failure of government machinery” despite clear judicial orders in place since 2015, they further said. 

Incidentally, the illegal firework unit in Egra had two explosions earlier but still continued production and there was no action from regulatory agencies.

Multiple appeals, no action

Biswajit Mukherjee, a former chief law officer of the state pollution control board (SPCB), wrote to several authorities on behalf of a non-government organisation named Paribesh Academy, pointing out the failures of the state machinery on the day of the Egra blast. 

The letter read:

Our organisation has time and again approached your office since 2015 to stop the functioning of the unlicensed fireworks manufacturing units in conformity with the National Green Tribunal, eastern zone bench order dated October 16, 2015. But records show that many explosions incidents occurred from the unlicensed fireworks manufacturing units (since then) … absolute failure of the government machinery.

It was addressed to the state environment secretary, director general of police and member secretary of the SPCB. It also has attached a list that shows at least 15 blasts in firework units across the state have happened since the order was passed.

At least 40 people, including women and children, have been killed due to such explosions and many have been injured. Since the letter, two more blasts have happened, adding at least another five casualties.

Sabuj Mancha, an environment platform, has also written to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, alleging that a part of the administration is trying to wriggle out clearances for several illegal fireworks units instead of closing them down.

The clearances were handed out in the guise of manufacturing green fireworks, which are allowed by the Supreme Court of India, Mancha alleged.

“Neither police nor the SPCB takes any effort to close the illegal fireworks units where thousands of children and teenagers are working… rather, they seem to be interested in the continuance of such units bypassing the norms,” reads the letter signed by Naba Dutta, general secretary of the platform.

It’s a fact that many such illegal units are still operating, state environment minister Manas Bhuiya told this reporter on May 22. “We have already written to senior officials of police and local administration and will do so again as the law has given power to police for taking action,” he said. 

Later on the same day, state urban development minister Firhad Hakim after the cabinet meeting, said the government has decided to set up clusters of firework units so that poor people, dependent on the industry, do not lose their livelihood.

A committee with senior officials from several departments has been formed with the chief secretary of West Bengal, H K Dwivedi, as chair.

SPCB action needed 

Mukherjee feels SPCB can play a much stronger role in stopping the illegal practice. He reminded that the SPCB had earlier issued a public notice in newspapers, urging people to report such units without disclosing their identities, which paid rich dividends; 

“We used to have joint raids with police based on provided information those largely stopped such practice,” Mukherjee said.

“The respective respondents concerned who are legally responsible under the law to check the illegal cracker manufacturing units will take all steps and measures to close down such illegally operating units…” directed the NGT in an October 2015 order based on a petition filed by Mukherjee.

Another NGT bench, on May 2, 2016, further observed it was deeply concerned by the fact that a large number of firecracker manufacturing units were operating illegally under the very nose of the agencies that are supposed to monitor those.

“We detect absolute negligence and callousness on the part of the agencies in the matter,” it said.

The tribunal also hinted that crude bombs were being manufactured in these illegal firework units, an allegation that has resurfaced after the Egra disaster.

“Under Indian Penal Code’s Section 166A, public servants disobeying the direction of law are punishable. Hence, we also demand penal action against police officers and others who have allowed such illegal practice to flourish despite specific judicial orders,” added Mukherjee.

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