Madhya Pradesh: Many questions, no answers, on Harda tragedy

States 360º: Why the cloak of secrecy around Harda? Also, why is the RSS getting into the business of setting up ‘Sainik Schools’?

A protest meeting demanding justice for Harda (photo: @Kashish__singh_/X)
A protest meeting demanding justice for Harda (photo: @Kashish__singh_/X)

Kashif Kakvi

Cover-up at Harda

First the undisputed facts. An explosion occurred in a firecracker factory at Harda, 140 km from Bhopal, on 6 February. The government claims the explosion killed 14 workers and injured 200. Two other explosions had been reported from the same factory in the past and despite orders by the district administration to shut it down, the politically connected owners managed to keep it running.

Two weeks after the blast, not a single worker was to be found at the site, and details of those who worked at the factory are not being disclosed. JCBs worked round the clock for the next four days to clear the debris.

Now the unverifiable claims. The injured and the local residents claim the ‘illegal’ factory was running in three shifts and employed over 500-600 workers. Each shift kept around 200 workers busy on the three floors of the factory, which is borne out by the number of injured persons. They claim that the death toll is much higher and a cover-up is on to hide the full extent of the tragedy.

The injured workers apparently claimed that a majority of the workers were migrant labourers from Bihar, tribals from Dhar and Muslims from adjoining areas. They also claimed that an explosives-laden truck hit an electric-pole while backing, and explosives spilled out and came in contact with electric wires, triggering the blast. Preliminary inquiries suggested that the factory had explosives far in excess of what it was permitted to keep, and was also in violation of several rules laid down in the Explosives Act.

The factory owner was convicted by a court in 2022 to 10 years’ imprisonment, but obtained bail and continued to operate the factory, claimed Arun Yadav, a Congress leader. Two days after the blast, the DM and SP of the district were transferred out by order from the chief minister.

A two-page inspection report from October 2023 soon surfaced, indicting the factory for violating all rules and safety norms. It warned of imminent threat to lives and property. But despite the report, the factory continued to function, apparently because of the owner’s connection with the ruling party.

Yadav also claimed that when state Congress president Jitu Patwari visited the site of the explosion, NDRF personnel deployed to rescue workers and clean up the area confided in him that the explosion generated heat that would have left no trace of survivors, burning even bones to ashes. They also claimed that there were two explosions, the second after a gap of seven to eight minutes, which would have allowed some workers to escape after the first explosion.

Lawyer Avani Bansal also voiced doubts about the death toll and claimed that several civil society groups were planning to move the high court to order a judicial inquiry. A group of NGOs were also demanding punitive action against errant officials who allowed the factory to function despite violations, and increased compensation. A monetary compensation of just Rs 2 lakh for each of the deceased and Rs 50,000 each to the injured was adding insult to injury, she felt.

Activists, Bansal confided, had also met families which claimed that several members working in the factory had not been accounted for and were missing. The explosion also extensively damaged around 50 houses in the vicinity and residents were ordered to vacate the houses and shift to a nearby college for shelter. They are now being threatened to accept paltry compensations to rebuild their houses, alleged Bansal.

The last word on the Harda explosion, it seems, is yet to be written. The administration’s decision to keep the area out of bounds for the media, and the ‘missing’ workers and survivors, have raised suspicions that are yet to be allayed.


Sainik Schools with RSS help?

Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, had once famously claimed that RSS volunteers could be mobilised for the border in three days while the army might take three weeks.

Jumla or not, his words were recalled by several commentators when the government introduced the Agniveer scheme, under which three-fourth of the soldiers recruited by the army are to be discharged after four years. The joke was that the scheme was tailor-made for the RSS, which could get into the private security business and absorb the discharged men trained by the army at public cost.

The RSS, of course, has never made a secret of its fascination for arms and the men. Nobody, therefore, is expressing any surprise at Vidya Bharati, the educational wing of the RSS, getting into the business of setting up ‘Sainik Schools’.

The foundation stone of a one such new residential school was laid in Narmadapuram district last week. Expected to come up in time for the RSS centenary celebrations in 2025, the school is being set up at a cost of Rs 170 crore. It will have shooting ranges and facilities for horse riding, swimming and other outdoor sports.

Sainik Schools were first set up in 1961 to groom students as responsible and disciplined citizens. Over time, 33 Sainik Schools came up in different parts of the country, funded by the ministry of defence. The oldest Sainik School in Madhya Pradesh was set up at Rewa in 1962.

In 2022, however, the Union government approved the setting up of 100 new Sainik Schools in partnership with NGOs/private schools/state governments. The Sainik School Society website claims that 38 such schools have already been set up across the country under the PPP model, many, if not most, of them funded by RSS-backed organisations. At least one such school has also been funded by the Adani Global School.

The new school in Narmadapuram will be the second Sainik School in the state under the PPP model, the first having come up in 2022 itself in Mandsaur district. Chief minister Mohan Yadav invited Vidya Bharati to open more such schools in the state to build ‘character’ and the nation.

The new Sainik Schools will continue to function under the aegis of the Sainik Schools Society and follow its rules and regulations, even when they are actually run by NGOs and private schools with support from the state government.

While Sainik Schools do not specifically train students to join the armed forces, what is clear is that the RSS, not content with its network of Ekal Vidyalayas and Saraswati Shishu Mandirs, plan to expand its footprint on school education.

Conditions of government schools in most states are poor with teachers, toilets and basic facilities missing. It is not clear why the state government would divert resources to set up Sainik Schools without first improving the conditions in existing schools.

Nor is there much clarity on the role of the RSS in running these schools. Is the 'cultural organisation' funding the schools, finding sponsors for them, actually running the schools, or facilitating approvals from the government? Or will it simply depute its pracharaks as teachers?


A rose by any other name…

The state government’s decision to call university vice-chancellors kulguru and not kulpati has intrigued observers. The proposal was first mooted three years ago, when Mohan Yadav was higher education minister. It was apparently never put up before the cabinet, but now that he is the chief minister, the proposal was quickly put up and approved.

Briefing the media, an official claimed that a committee was set up to examine the proposal and suggest amendments to the 1973 act which governs the functioning of the universities in the state.

Of the 21 government-run universities and 51 private universities in the state, only eight are apparently governed by the 1973 act, while the rest are governed through independent legislation. “If changing the name can improve quality of education, the government should certainly do so. But it seems the government is more interested in playing to the gallery and appease a certain constituency,” said a university professor. The government would better serve the state by reflecting why higher education in MP is in such a poor state, he added. 

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