Environmentalists have complained that the administration’s failure to shut down illegal firework units in West Bengal has paved the way for a series of blasts that killed over 25 people in 2023, including nine in Barasat.
An investigation carried out by The Plurals revealed that senior officials were aware that over 5,500 illegal units were operating in West Bengal and chief minister Mamata Banerjee had, in fact, ordered all such units to be hauled up.
According to information available with The Plurals, at least three weeks ahead of the Barasat fireworks unit blast, senior officials of the state, including the chief secretary, knew that over 5,500 illegal units were operating in West Bengal. Incidentally, chief minister Mamata Banerjee had directed that all illegal firework units in the state be hauled up after the Egra incident, which she has iterated after the Barasat one.
All these units are deemed to be illegal as virtually no manufacturing unit has mandatory clearances from the West Bengal Pollution Control Board
Environmentalists have complained that the administration’s failure to shut down the illegal firework units has paved the way for a series of blasts which have killed over 25 people in 2023, including nine in the Barasat blast.
A meeting of senior state government officials led by chief secretary H.K. Dwivedi as well as some fireworks manufacturers on August 5, a copy of whose minutes is with The Plurals, reported that there are 5,556 fireworks units in the state.
“District magistrates were requested to identify fireworks manufacturing / selling / storage units within their districts. Based on the survey, the following status was obtained … total number of units 5556 (with) selling units 3766, manufacturing units 1347, manufacturing & storage 229, manufacturing & sale 18, storage 19, sale & storage 177,” reads the meeting minutes.
The top rung of the state administration seemed to know that the actual number of fireworks units was even higher and the chief secretary had requested DMs/ SPs/ CPs present to further identify if there are any more such units and obtain the status within 15 days.
All these units are deemed to be illegal as virtually no manufacturing unit has mandatory clearances from the West Bengal Pollution Control Board to manufacture green fireworks. The Supreme Court has directed that only green fireworks can be manufactured and used in the country on select days.
“There is some issue with the renewal of PCB clearance but National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) has cleared about 41 units,” said Sukhdeb Chakrabarty, member of a fireworks manufacturers’ association. However, the NEERI clearance needs to be vetted by state agencies, including WBPCB, before any unit can start the manufacturing process commercially.
“This is a gross failure of the administration and amounts to contempt of court. If the officials knew where the illegal units have been operating, why did they not act and close them down as per the judicial order?” asked Biswajit Mukherjee, an environmentalist and retired chief law officer of state PCB.
“The concerned respective respondents 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 …” the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had directed in an October, 2015 order based on a petition filed by Mukherjee.
Another NGT bench, on May 2, 2016, had observed that “we are deeply concerned by the fact that a large number of fire cracker manufacturing units operating illegally under the very nose of the agencies which are supposed to monitor those (and we) detect absolute negligence and callousness on the part of the agencies in the matter”.
Mukherjee plans to move court soon to raise the issue. Environmental activist Subhash Datta told The Plurals that he would be joining Mukherjee to argue the case.
According to sources, as of now only 7 units got clearances from PCB for manufacturing green fireworks in state.
“It seems that part of the state administration is hand in glove with some fireworks manufacturers who are flaunting their political clout to cover up illegally operating firework units in the name of livelihood. It’s unfortunate that repeated letters of us, including to the chief minister and chief secretary failed to evoke any action against errant firework manufacturers,” said Naba Dutta of green platform Sabuj Mancha.
Incidentally, a table attached with the August 5 minutes shows that even if all the proposed fireworks clusters come up, still hardly employment of 6,000 people would be generated against the claim of lakhs being made by a section of the fireworks industry.