The Punjab Police on Thursday said that the firecracker factory, where an explosion claimed 23 lives on Wednesday, in Gurdaspur district’s Batala area was illegal. National Disaster Response Force personnel continued search operations at the site to look for any survivor trapped under the debris.

“The factory was working illegally,” PTI quoted Batala Senior Superintendent of Police Opinderjit Singh as saying. “I didn’t come to know about it earlier, otherwise it would have been closed. Now we are checking the licences of all the factories in the Batala city.”

Four factory-cum-shops operated in the area without licences after the family business of owner Satnam Singh was split into four by his sons. The eldest son got his father’s permit, which was not renewed by the administration, according to the police.

Families of those affected by the incident demanded action against higher authorities for failing to make sure that the factory was shut down despite repeated requests. “What inquiry will the government do now...a case of murder should be registered against top officials for allowing the factory to run illegally,” a protestor said. The victims’ kin also shouted slogans against district authorities.

In 2017, a blast had reportedly taken place in the same factory at Batala in which one worker was killed and three others injured. Many factory workers, a few family members of the factory’s owner along with a few passersby were killed in Wednesday’s explosion.

Following the postmortem, the bodies would be handed over to the families, officials said. A forensic team from Chandigarh will also reach the scene to collect samples. The state government has already ordered a magisterial investigation into the incident.

“The tragedy at a firecracker factory in Punjab is heart-wrenching,” the Prime Minister’s Office tweeted on Thursday morning. “Deeply anguished due to it. My condolences to the families of those who lost their lives. I hope the injured recover at the earliest. Agencies are working on rescue operations at the site of the tragedy.”

Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had, on Wednesday, asked civil and police authorities to provide all the required help to the families of the victims. He also asked the deputy commissioner to provide the best treatment to the injured free of cost.

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