For the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) government in Bengal, its poor governance could prove a heavier political encumbrance going into the Assembly elections of 2021, even more than any challenge from the resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) .The massive explosion on January 3at Naihati, North 24 Parganas at an illegal cracker-making unit, killing five of Bengal’s poorest citizens, effectively trashed the TMC’s palpably false projection of Bengal as India’s last secular avant-garde arcadia!

TMC insiders conceded that the Friday afternoon explosion played spoilsport to their new year partying, even as they were having a go at the BJP over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).The first bare facts as reported in immediate local TV coverage were ominous. Serial blasts that had continued long after the first three big bangs, were so powerful that people as far as 8 kilometres away heard them. Houses four kilometres away from Masjidpara the spot of occurrence shook, their residents gripped by panic, as windowpanes rattled. Just what had gone off? It could not be ordinary commercial crackers for sure, ran the argument. However, as more facts became available gradually, things once more fell into the by now familiar pattern.

The owner of the illegal factory is one Sheikh Noor Hussain. He has been running this business for over two decades. A sad commentary on the governance of Bengal again – it means that even the earlier Left Front government had been negligent of the activities of such people, and their growing political clout over the years. These days, Mr Hussain is a prominent TMC activist, known to participate in various party programmes, especially on polling days. He was missing initially from his ill-fated ‘factory’ at Debak village in Naihati. Later, he was arrested during the night from nearby Amdanga area.

By that time, four of the ‘workers’ in his unit, including two women, had died. A fifth person Abhay Mandi (25) who was admitted in a serious condition to a nearby hospital at Kalyani, died later. As for the other four, their bodies had been ripped apart in the serial blasts, as the roof of their 5,000 square feet working area went off, along with those of several nearby buildings. Major blazes broke out, making immediate relief work very difficult. The young son of one of the women could recognize what remained of her corpse much later, by spotting a ring on a hand that came off her torso.

Local people said the victims were some of the 35or so ‘workers’ who laboured at Hussain’s factory. Most were employed on a daily basis, earning between Rs 200/250. There was very little other work available. Male members of most families at Debak and other villages migrated regularly to other states. This left the burden of running their local households on their wives.

Such accounts hardly tallied with familiar TMC claims of the unparalleled ‘great success’ of their social welfare and other projects since 2011. Incidentally, Naihati is well within the greater Kolkata metropolitan area, only 42 kms to the North of the city centre!

Later, reports quoted local people stressing the sad overarching reality of poor economic conditions, of official corruption and involvement with powerful anti-socials, in recent years. Most people were reduced to working in illegal cracker-making units or in petty smuggling. In Masjidpara alone, there were between 60 to 110 such units, according to various estimates. Significantly, neither the local police nor the local elected Panchayat leaders could provide more exact details about either these ‘factories’, the working conditions, the concerned owners, or the nature of the fireworks production. People admitted seeing cartloads of the staff being taken away by carriers out of the area. They were sent to other states as well as Bangladesh, it was assumed.

All these years, MPs, MLAs and Panchayat leaders of different parties had been regularly elected from the area. It was obvious that so many local illegal units employing so many people on such a scale must have been functional for some time. But the local TMC Panchayat head claimed to know nothing about the activities of Mr Hussain, or even of the illegal units themselves!

But he did promise to stop all such factories ‘immediately’ as newsmen spoke to him. So also did the local Joint Police Commissioner D. Dey, who said that a large force had been sent to the area.’ Other officials, including police Commissioner Mr Manoj Verma, said not only would the offending units be closed, but the people who would lose their jobs would be ‘socially rehabilitated’ as well. Significantly, the local TMC leadership made no such commitments on a better future for locals. Local people, for once spoke out freely and blasted the ruling party and the police. They said that there had been many such explosions in the area which menaced their lives. The noise could be heard along both sides of the river Hooghly. Repeated complaints to the police and the political’ leaders ‘made no difference. Anti-socials had a free hand in dealing with people, enjoying social/political immunity through their connections with the ruling party.

As police and Forensic officers moved in, local citizens demonstrated angrily. They staged road blocks for some time demanding immediate action against and the arrest of Hussain. After his arrest and being produced in court, he was remanded to police custody.

For once the TMC’s explanations and the police activities did not impress the majority of people, The usual version that only ordinary crackers and fireworks were being manufactured did not convince anyone. It could not explain the massive impact and shockwaves of the blasts that could be heard and felt several kilometres away. The reticence of forensic officials, who refused to comment before examining samples collected from the spot, was understandable. Since 2015, there have been four major blasts each in both South 24 Parganas and West Midnapore districts. Not to mention the major explosion at Khagragarh in October2014. Altogether 23 people including several minors/child labourers had been killed, while scores more were injured, some severely.

At Khagragarh, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) had taken over official investigation as a crucial link was established between the anti-socials who were working in a building owned by a local Muslim TMC leader and the dreaded banned JMB Islamic outfit of Bangladesh. Over 30 people were arrested all over India. Bombs and grenades made from Burdwan district were regularly sent to Bangladesh.

West Bengal police had initially reported that at Khagragarh, a gas cylinder had exploded! At Pingla in Midnapore, where 13 people including children were killed during a similar blast, local police had said that fireworks ordered for a wedding ceremony were being made there. They only confirmed the version given earlier by state TMC leaders even before the CID completed its work. On another occasion the police had post haste destroyed powerful explosives collected during a raid even before the forensic officers and NIA personnel could analyse them! This triggered speculation that they had acted to shield local TMC leaders.

Critics of the government had a field day. Mr. Arjun Singh, a local BJP MP, called for an NIA probe. He decried what he alleged to be the well-known tendency of the TMC government to suppress facts regarding all major explosions in which there was a palpable collusion and involvement of the ruling party. This was echoed by former CPI(M) MP Mohammad Salim and Politburo leader, as he condemned the role of the Chief Minister and the police in protecting known anti-socials in West Bengal. However, TMC minister Jyotipriyo Mullick dismissed Singh’s allegations as being part of the BJP’s familiar policy of politicizing everything in Bengal.

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